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Baal (Susan Elkin reviews)

by Bertolt Brecht | Translation by Peter Tegel
society/company: Sedos
performance date: 22 Jan 2019
venue: The Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, London, EC4Y 8EQ
I can think of few amateur companies who would, or could, take on the challenge of Brecht’s first play but ever-versatile, adventurous Sedos have staged it with confidence, verve and a lot of talent.

Written in 1918 when Brecht was twenty, Baal wasn’t premiered until 1923. It tells the story of a dissolute young poet whose journey of self discovery includes seedy bars, several love affairs, at least one murder and a great deal of gin. It’s raw Brecht.

Using Peter Tegel’s translation, this production reworks most of the poetry in a musical format. Almost everyone in the cast is an actor-muso so they sit alongside the action providing music and sound effects in authentic Brechtian style Several of the cast, including Ben Woolley as Baal are pretty competent singers. And there are three musicians who aren’t actors.

The main playing area consists of a titled platform, under which there is space to crawl, with scaffolding at the back which forms a cage, prison or indoor area and, in the second half incorporates a rather spectacular ‘river’ with proper wet water.

Woolley excels as Baal, unlikeable but oddly vulnerable: the victim of his own excesses and shortcomings. He writhes, struts, lurks and sings. It’s a fine piece of acting. And he’s ably supported by the strong, impeccably directed (Robert J Stanex who also designed the set) ensemble who really run with all the stripped down physicality that Brecht advocated. They also act as a chorus, Unfortunately some of the choral speaking was pretty ragged on opening night. Let’s hope it coheres in subsequent performances.

It is commendably edgy to usher the audience out to the interval (and again at the end) while the cast is still singing full belt. Then when we return the cast are sitting with insolent nonchalance in auditorium seats from which in due course they emerge making the piece seem suddenly quite immersive.

Baal is an interesting theatrical curiosity and, no doubt, very satisfying to take part in. I hope lots of A level theatre studies students get to see it because Brecht is usually on the syllabus and this is an unusual opportunity. Having said that, though, it isn’t exactly great drama and, stylistically, the piece isn’t quite my cup of tea.

 First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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