[THEATRE: feature] Simon Stone on Baal
[Theatre] Something wicked this way comes…
By Dee Jefferson
Simon Stone may have come straight off the back of a season of The Wild Duck on Belvoir’s main stage, followed immediately by a season of Baal at Melbourne’s Malthouse, but when I sit down with him in the Sydney Theatre Company foyer, he’s showing little to no signs of fatigue.
Stone’s meteoric rise through Sydney’s theatre scene over the last two or so years inevitably hurtled towards a point in time – about 18 months ago – when he sat down with Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, and was invited to pitch a project for STC’s upcoming main stage season.
“We were talking about German theatre specifically, and I kind of ran through this list of plays that I considered probably more attractive to a main stage company – certainly safer, and more traditional. And I said, ‘Then of course, you could do the show that no main stage company should ever do, and that is the actual risk – and the kind of thing that a main stage company therefore must do – and they started getting very excited.”
That play is Baal – a bleak treatise on the antisocial instincts of man that is rife with violence, sexual depravity, misogyny and nihilism; Bertolt Brecht’s first play, written when he was just 20 years old; more poetry and music than narrative, and rarely performed. Not an evening of light entertainment, but not an entirely surprising choice given Stone’s background of creating challenging, formally experimental re-interpretations of classic works, and his passion for exploring human relationships. For Stone, Baal is a play that – like Rousseau, or Plato’s Republic – forces us to examine “why we would want to be part of groups of people, rather than on our own.”
Stone first read Baal when he was 17, on the eve of embarking on an acting degree at the Victorian College of the Arts (where he met cast members and previous collaborators Thomas M. Wright, Chris Ryan and Shelly Lauman). “It was psychologically raw in a way that [grabbed me]. It’s about the antisocial instinct; Baal represents a character who has decided to not in any way pay any lip service to the notion of society; he is just his instincts; he is just what he wants.”
Stone has transposed Brecht’s character from Weimar Germany to the modern day, where Baal is a sort of rock poet, a sexually charged, hedonistic idol with a guitar in one hand and a bourbon – or his cock – in the other. He’s an anti-hero to end all anti-heroes, amoral, nihilistic, stumbling from one rape or murder to the next with impunity – a little like Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, but with without the ego or the self-preservation instinct.
Stylistically, Stone describes his production as like both a poem and a piece of visual art – almost a ‘happening’ (in the traditional late-’60s sense of the word) inasmuch as production is “really going into a bacchanalian rite, where you explore the depths of certain parts of humanity.”
“[We] embraced the notion that this is a play that was intentionally written not to make narrative sense, and intentionally written to explore a state of mind, and certain atmospheres, and archetypal states of being, rather than – and actually as a revolt against – the notion of traditional ‘psychological’ theatre, that had been [prevalent].”
While The Wild Duck was met with rapturous critical approval and a sell-out season, Baal’s Melbourne season suggests that it will prove more divisive. Interestingly, Stone describes Duck as part of a “middle class version of theatre,” in the sense that it is observational and psychologically realistic. “All of the darkness that lies underneath a show like The Wild Duck – all of the implicit violence and implicit moral decay in that play – is being explored in [Baal] in archetypal reality.”
What: Baal, Dir. Simon Stone
When: Until June 11
Where: Wharf 1 / Sydney Theatre Company
Tickets: $30 for under 30s at sydneytheatre.com.au