Most reviews of student theatre tend to follow the same pattern: brief outline of the reviewer’s emotional response, a quick run through a play’s basic plot points, comment on the staging, set, costumes and tech, highlight a couple of actors, sum up with a closing remark, stick a star rating on the bottom. It works because most plays done in St Andrews have a structure which befits such a review. Baal did not.
Baal has very little plot, few characters of note other than the titular Baal, multiple, similar locations, grand speeches philosophising on love; even grander drunken speeches philosophising on alcohol. In fact, the only tangible thing about Baal was a strong emphasis on aesthetics which permeated the entire production: it was visually and aurally lovely. Tom Giles, Alex Bottomley, and their production team must be applauded for the creation of a simple set which facilitated tens of locations, an impressively constructed tree dominating the stage. The photographs which, in keeping with Brechtian tradition, flashed up on the backdrop to suggest location and mirror the words of the play, were also excellent. Similarly, the live music provided by Andrew Scott, which underscored the play, provided both accompaniment to the various songs throughout and created location, providing door knocks and rumbling thunder beneath the action.
However, many scenes felt distinctly under-directed and under-rehearsed: blocking was frequently un-conducive to seeing the action of the play, scenes masked by the tree. Even the basics, like accent work and audibility, were compromised, somewhat confusing the setting of the play. When the language of the piece is as poetic as it is in Baal I want to be able to hear every word!
For the most part Andrew Chalmers played the central sociopathic figure of Baal well, presenting a strong command of the stage and dealing with tricky monologues on the philosophical nature of love, alcohol, and women admirably. However, the songs which punctuate the piece, in spite of a lovely singing voice, felt somewhat uncomfortable for Chalmers; perhaps more rehearsal could have solved this issue. Other actors struggled more which the liminal nature of many of the characters, with faltering accents and odd physicality, meaning characters were not as distinctly defined they could have been. The climax of the play – in which Baal stabs his friend – was distinctly underwhelming, the reaction of the supporting cast not matching the gravity of the moment. Sebastian Allum and Jared Liebmiller, however, managed to transcend the difficulties of playing multiple roles, providing convincing performances throughout.
Superfluous to the production, but the programmes (made by Rebecca Allen Tejerina) were doubtless the most aesthetically delightful programmes I have seen in this town. Perhaps not what a theatre review ought pick out, but they were indicative of a level of care and thought given to the production’s overall look and feel that is rarely seen in this town. They are also indicative of the central problem behind the production: a focus on aesthetic elements without the depth to convey the intended meaning to the audience.
Brecht rarely makes perfect sense. Brecht rarely makes any sense. However, the production – aesthetics aside – did little to elucidate the dense, fragmented script. Giles and Bottomley ought to be praised for delving into a difficult text, but we needed more from the direction to allow the actors and staging to match the aesthetic innovation.
Baal was performed as part of On The Rocks