R. M. Foster reviews Baal, a Bechtian play performed for the On The Rocks Festival.


 

I am afraid it was all just a little bit Ba(n)al.

Lacking in originality, I left feeling a little underwhelmed. There were hints of innovation in terms of set (the skilfully created tree and tavern set-up were of particular note) but Directors Tom Giles and Alex Bottomley failed to bring out their full skills to create what could have been a potentially, extremely unsettling and effective production. Truly, this was a missed opportunity to go much further and really shock the audience – instead, we were simply left feeling a little awkward in between poorly done scene changes, with the lights never seeming to adjust properly, and unsure as to whether or not we should clap due to the strange technique of the entire cast standing on stage with the lights up before the final scene.

In the role of Baal himself, Andrew Chalmers was a reasonable choice. He pulled off the scruffy, ‘despondent poet’ look quite well. But his cardinal sin was rushing his lines. Brecht’s dense texts are difficult to understand at the best of times, let alone when someone rushes through them, adding emphasis either in the wrong places or not at all. Indeed, Chalmers missed the opportunity to really feel and indulge in Brecht’s effulgent and colourful descriptions of purple skies and white bed sheets and love in between, and he sounded more like he was reading out a shopping list.

Once again, the actor could have gone much further in the deliverance of his lines to the distraught Sophie in cruelly and coldly telling her to kill herself and bury her baby. And indeed, in a later scene, where Baal drags a young girl behind a tree to rape her, there was no energy, no cruelty and hardly any struggle. Both of these represented deeply disappointing opportunities for coldness that might have given the audience a chill. Instead, it was all a little bit vanilla.

The one part I could not quite believe, however, was the pivotal moment towards the end of the play where Baal knifes his friend Ekhart in a tavern and fundamentally cements himself as an outsider – on the run from the law. This was done in an unbelievably lacklustre and blasé manner and the reactions of those around Baal made them seem equally nonchalant and indifferent. Instead of reacting to the horrific crime of watching a man stabbed in front of them, the players looked at Chalmers for a few awkward moments as if he had just dropped a packet of fish fingers on the floor.

I quite literally cringed at this point.

Vincent Förster proved a decent choice for the role of Ekhart, with some good acting ability and a tangible presence on stage. He too, though, is guilty of the sin of rushing and even mumbling his lines. He was barely audible at times.

Having said all of this, honourable mention must go to Giles and Bottomley for grappling with a difficult text and a large cast and for having some innovative solutions to logistical problems with effective music in the background.

Stand out performance of the night was that of Suzanna Swanson Johnston for her dual role as the anguished Sophie and the brooding waitress. She was the only performer I genuinely believed and she brought some much-needed intensity to a performance that seemed to be dragging – her shaking, whimpering and finally her rather curdling scream as the lights of a scene went down, genuinely made me feel a little cold. Eliciting such a reaction from the audience is truly a sign of some real talent.

All in all, the performance was fifty shades of beige. It was a distinctly average attempt, which disappointingly, with better acting ability, more intensity and less confusion between scene changes, could have been excellent.

Tension was not built correctly, and an opportunity from a few of the main actors to be extremely intense and to crank up the creep factor was sorely missed.

It was, a decent performance nonetheless, but not worth rushing to see.

 

 

R. M. Foster