Ganesh Versus The Third Reich
Since Theatre People started giving star ratings for reviews, I’ve seen some pretty impressive stuff. However, so far I've refrained from giving anything the big five. My thinking: Keep it up your sleeve. One day, a show is going to rock you so hard that you'll need it. That day is today, and Ganesh vs The Third Reich is that show.
In my recent TP rant, Talking About an Evolution, I spoke of my respect for theatre that pushes boundaries, defies stereotypes and challenges its audience to think and feel in new and possibly uncomfortable ways. Ganesh vs The Third Reich doesn’t so much push boundaries as bulldozes them, blow torches them and then dances a merry jig upon their ashes.
In a grossly inadequate nutshell, this is the story of Ganesh, Hindu god of overcoming obstacles, and his vendetta to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika. (The swastika was an important symbol for the Hindus and many other cultures for thousands of years before Hitler. Found in temples all over India and Asia, it represents unity, continuance and the all-pervading power of the dharma or spirit.) In itself this is a wonderful and gritty fable. But that’s just the foundation.
Ganesh vs The Third Reich shifts between Ganesh’s story, and the behind the scenes process of bringing this tale to the stage. Not an original device, but never, in my experience, so powerfully employed as in this case. Back to Back Theatre are a company of people of various abilities, including many artists who present with what society terms ‘intellectual disability’.
Now please hold it right there if you think my impressions of this work are slanted by a need to be politically correct or to make allowances for the disabilities of the creative team and cast. What I respect most about this gobsmacking piece of theatre is that it is very pointedly NOT PC, nor does it make any excuses for itself or any member of its company. It is this uncompromising honesty that defines it and renders it confronting, entertaining and unlike anything that's gone before.
Ganesh’s story covers a hell of a lot of metaphorical and symbolic territory which then resonates through the interspersed rehearsal scenes. The script kicks up such philosophical issues as the role of the ego in human nature, the enormous subject of eugenics, the extent to which obstacles can be overcome, and what is acceptable under artistic licence. If that's not enough, ponder on these questions; Is an appreciation of ‘abnormality’ a healthy broad-mindedness or a sick perversion? Is the act of making theatre just a socially acceptable expression of insanity? And indeed, what constitutes myth, reality or normality anyway?
Design, by Mark Cuthbertson and Ian Hinkley, anchors the work effectively between theatrics and stark reality. Blank space is transformed scene to scene by a series of retractable 2D curtains. Projection, Andrew Livingstone’s lighting, Lachlan Carrick's sound and musical underscoring by Johann Johannsson frame and fortify the action, without ever pulling focus or over-complicating the effect. This is not lip service. All technical aspects of this show are equally worthy of high and individual praise. I am confined only by the bitter-sweet dilemma of having so much to say regarding the concept, acting and direction of this work that I am forced to be highly selective as to where to wax lyrical.
Every cast member is impressive in their character roles. Brian Tilley as Ganesh is commanding and well-measured. Simon Laherty’s performance as the young Jewish man who befriends Ganesh is particularly affecting. Demonstrating precise and understated control as well as bi-lingual abilities, Laherty is the very definition of stage presence. Tilley and Laherty's characters' interfaith friendship is a powerful plotline and well realised by both actors. While the production is clearly a collaborative effort, it appears that much of the credit for the concept and writing must go to Tilley. My utmost respect on both counts.
The action and acting really fire, however, when this troupe of fine actors play themselves. As audience, we become privy to their friendship dynamics, creative disputes, personality clashes, stubbornness and breaking points. It is in this context that we meet the genius of Scott Price and Mark Deans.
Price speaks his mind. He fears that Simon and Brian are out of touch with the highly sensitive subject matter of their characters. He tells drama facilitator David who diplomatically broaches the issue with the other two actors. (Simon genuinely considers the issue, and then responds gently, ‘Mmm...Fuck off, Scott.’) Price portrays his considerable intelligence and dilemma superbly, while managing to pull off the difficult feat of being a highly endearing antagonist.
Mark Deans is the quiet achiever, quite literally. Ironically and controversially cast in the role of Hitler, ‘a great orator’, Deans’ communication is almost entirely non-verbal. His performance demonstrates the immense power of silence. He holds his space in the cast with a compelling blend of integrity, intention, innocence and canniness, without an ounce of pretension or contrivance. With all sincerity, I don’t think I have ever seen an actor’s performance that has left such an impression upon me.
David Woods, the only cast member who doesn’t live with the label of intellectual disability, cannot be disregarded for a moment. An actor who clearly knows his way around the classical rudiments of theatre, within this show he performs a complete inversion. Beyond his excellent portrayal of Vishnu in the Ganesh story, he is also the well-intentioned theatre and disability professional, the ‘regular guy’, patiently steering the eccentric ship into more coherent waters. ‘If you want freedom, you’ve got to make it fixed,’ he tells Brian who yearns to make changes to the script mid-rehearsal. Woods’ assumption of authority brings up a world of issues for consideration by the broader audience. It’s a role that could be handled by no less than a master craftsman, and Woods is just that.
The many intricacies of this work are woven together artfully by Director Bruce Gladwin. Originally conceived and workshopped in 2008, Ganesh vs The Third Reich almost never made it to the theatre. Says Gladwin, ‘We knew our narrative was morally fraught; it was too dangerous for a little theatre company from Geelong to appropriate Hindu gods and create a fairytale within the Holocaust. Despite our pleasure, the show could not be made...Over time our thinking shifted. Our reasoning that we should not create the work became our rationale for bringing it to life.’
Amen. Back to Back Theatre, I salute you. Theatre people, I implore you to not let an opportunity like this slip past. A truly staggering piece of theatre. Five stars.