Melbourne Festival review: Ganesh Versus The Third Reich ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 07, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

I've been dithering over this post for days, trying to find a way in to writing about this extraordinary show. As with Back to Back's Food Court, which remains one of the most compelling experiences I've had in a theatre, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich takes an idea which initially appears to be very simple, and then, with cumulative force, systematically unpicks every expectation that you might have formed, until the psyche finds itself at such a point of vulnerability that you are suddenly confronted with - what? The Human Condition? Your own existential solitude? The naked soul as Foucault imagined it, criss-crossed and scarred by the traces of power and authority?

One of the problems in discussing Back to Back, the little theatre company from Geelong that could, is that it creates experiences that defeat description. Outlining a production's shape gives an idea of its characteristics, its morphology, if you like; but this morphology doesn't explain the vitality that inhabits the work. I feel, even more than usual, as if I were attempting to invoke an entire life, with all its incidence, richness, mundanity, conflict and beauty, by dissecting a corpse.

Bruce Gladwin and his collaborators make a work that can only happen in a theatre. It can't be translated into another medium, because it exists so fiercely in its transient present, in the particular moments in which it's witnessed by the particular people who happen to attend. Its transformations are a kind of alchemy, a human magic that ignites in the shifting relationships between the performers and the audience. It's at once transparently simple and profoundly complex.

As those who have followed the mild controversy that greeted its publicity will know, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich is, in part, a fable about how Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, travels to Nazi Germany to wrest back the swastika from Hitler. A major god in the Hindu pantheon, Ganesh is the deity of obstacles: he not only removes them, but will place them in situations that need to be checked. One of his lesser aspects is as lord of letters and learning, an avatar of stories (which is why I have two small brass effigies of Ganesh on my desk).

Ganesh's aspect as remover of obstacles must have special significance for a company in which most members are disabled. And Back to Back's decision to interrogate Hitler reminds us that, well before their plans to eradicate Jews, homosexuals, Roma and Slavic people, Nazi Germany targeted its disabled population. In 1939, the state systematically began to murder people with mental and physical disabilities, labelling them "unworthy of life", with estimates of deaths varying from 200,000 to 250,000. These murders were the experimental laboratory for what later became the death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Given such a dark subtext, not to mention the questions of cultural appropriation in employing the figure of Ganesh, it's unsurprising that the company discarded their initial idea for Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. "We knew our narrative was morally fraught," says Bruce Gladwin in his program note. "Over time our thinking shifted. Our self-imposed censorship - our reasoning that we should not create the work - became the rationale for bringing it to life."

What is presented instead is a double reality. We see the actors - Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price and Brian Tilley - and director David Woods creating their Holocaust fairytale. When we walk in, the stage is a working studio littered with tables, ladders and other miscellaneous mess, with a row of huge curtains tied up at the side of the stage. As the performers argue in a desultory fashion, the director comes in and takes charge.

These glimpses of rehearsal are punctuated by scenes of theatrical spectacle, in which the semi-transparent plastic curtains, painted with silhouetted outlines of trees, houses and other illusions, are drawn across the stage. They are backlit, so performers can be seen in silhouette as well, or are used as a screen for shadow puppetry. The shifts from mundane reality to fairytale are swift, signalled by sound and lighting, and completely transform the stage, so that you are plunged wholly into mythic realities and just as suddenly, almost with a sense of bereftness, dragged out of them.

What is hard to explain is how this rhythm of contrast intensifies into a shattering potency during the show. As in Food Court, the work is an ambush: gestures and relationships which seem of merely mundane importance, or which begin as comic confrontations, inexorably gather emotional force. Subtly and incrementally, connections begin to accrete between the two storylines; for example, David plays Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments on, among others, disabled children, and David's very correct treatment of his actors begins to collect sinister undertones.

Perhaps part of this sense of ambush is in how lightly these connections are drawn. The rehearsal scenes are leavened by absurd comedy: Simon, for instance, complaining about his part as one of Mengele's experimental subjects: "It's hard being a Jew." They argue, passionately, about the issue of appropriation. There are sudden and confronting gestures towards the audience: David flinging his hand towards us, as if he is addressing a bank of empty seats, claiming that the audience is just coming to watch "freak porn". As the arguments between the performers intensify, his contempt becomes double-edged, and you begin to wonder if the person most interested in "freak porn" is David himself.

When these arguments explode into violence, the effect is devastating and shocking: the disparate elements and themes of the production suddenly fuse in a wholly unexpected way. The final image is unforgettable. David, tired of his job, tired of these freaks, is left with Mark, who has been the silent focus of many of the cast's arguments. Mark's mother will pick him up later. David, using all his professional skills in people management, deals with the annoyance of Mark by suggesting that they play hide and seek.

Mark hides under the table; David, pretending to look for him, picks up his things, and leaves the room. As the light closes in on him, Mark remains crouched under the table, wriggling with delight at the game, waiting to be found. Even thinking of this moment shakes my heart. It's not simply that this disabled man has been carelessly abandoned by someone who should know better. It's how this apparently trivial gesture becomes, in the deepest and most vulnerable echo chambers of the consciousness, a metaphor for the betrayal of all human hope.

This shows the power and ambiguity, also, of what Back to Back do to the notion of performance. David Woods is the only actor without disability, and his is, in the conventional sense, a brilliant performance. There is no question, at any time, that the rest of the cast isn't making a performance: this is the company's counter-argument to the bitter notion of their being "freak porn". But these actors bring another edge, a sense of perilous exposure that is intensified under Gladwin's impeccably sure direction. I can't think of another company which so foregrounds the knowledge that this work is being made, in each moment, before our eyes: it is a great part of why the audiences becomes so deeply involved.

Back to Back have never had any truck with "special" treatment: their work has a harsh honesty that makes it impossible to patronise. But they also specialise in moments of breath-taking beauty that assert the sheer power of their skills. There are images I won't forget: the impossible poignancy and strangeness, for example, of Ganesh, dressed in a business suit, standing before Hitler, who is played by Simon in a ridiculous knitted Hitler costume. Or an evocation of Indra's net, when a back curtain of stars was lifted to reveal a blazing light, like a sunrise. I've never seen anything like this show, because only Back to Back could make it. They are, simply, our most important independent theatre company.

Picture: David Woods and Brian Tilley in Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, directed, designed and devised by Bruce Gladwin. Lighting design by Andrew Livingston, Bluebottle; design and set construction by Mark Cuthbertson, design and animation Rhian Hinkley, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Performed by Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and David Woods. Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne Festival and Back to Back Theatre. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until October 9.


Daniel Coghlan said...

A brilliant summary. I'm glad to finally read a review that isn't focussed on the surrounding controversy, but instead by the way Back to Back has challenged, subverted and eventually extended the expectations that an audience may have entering a theatre. There's so much more to it than the fable of Ganesh and his quest to reclaim the swastika. A powerful, incredible piece of theatre.

Amanda said...

Great review, Alison! It really helped me to clarify all the thoughts about the play which I had swirling about in my head since seeing it last night. I can't think when I last saw a play which affected me so deeply. Back to Back are amazing.

Elaine said...

Thank you for this review which expressed how I felt about this incredible play - it has stayed in my mind all week. A wonderful experience.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Daniel and Amanda. Yes, what a show.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, and Elaine. (You just snuck in while I was posting!)

Jilly said...

Best piece of theatre I have seen in years and felt very touched as I walked out of theatre. Have been musing on it ever since the show.
Run out of superlatives.........

Geoffrey said...

Love the new look! I gave me a fright!

Alison Croggon said...

A long overdue makeover. Glad you like it, and hope you recovered from any shock.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your review Alison.

I went along to the Malthouse believing the show was sold out, but hoping for a piece of luck. I got in. I was beside myself afterwards, but one of the things I thought about was how hard it has been for me to go to see a piece of theatre sometimes. Its because its so rare to be spoken to. I’m just a person in the audience, and though I have great admiration for technical and formal achievements, I am unequivocal regarding the things that move me. And the basis for this is private. The ground shifts so much and yet so much inside productions stays the same, suspended in some kind of privileged sphere.

I also thought about how moving it was to witness a kind of transparency of purpose. A Show giving performers and audience energy, revealing an imaginative ambition, rather than an exhibition of great cost and a certain cynical ambition. The elements of a production always seemed liberated by this transparency. I cant add much critically to this review, but fragments of my experience. For example it was the kind of show where I would be erupting in tears as my neighbour laughed out loud and someone else sat very quiet.

It was so intelligent – the admission of the piece being made before our eyes at the same time as the audience being utterly included at the same time as not for a moment being let off the hook. The disarmament of not only our expectations but our complacencies, our passivity, our desire to hide from its difficulties. The sheer physical beauty of the performers. The very real tenderness of the embraces that shine throughout the piece. The terrifying insinuations of cruelty and domination, of power and its traces in the creative process. Harnessing the fragility of the human world at war with itself. Presenting and inverting the perceptions of otherness.

And the apparent looseness with which these ‘scenes’ were thrown up. The ideas and scenarios all so simply conceived that their full complexity could stretch out. And the quality that I keep thinking of – transparency. I was moved enormously and unexpectedly. What a piece of work.


Geoffrey said...

*It* gave me a fright I should have typed.

Yes, I recovered – but it was quite a shock at first. I wondered where on earth I had ended up!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Bill for your post, which fills out some of the aspects I missed. Especially for mentioning the embraces between the cast, and the show's tenderness. I'm finding myself moved by the passionate responses here.

Anonymous said...

What an incredible work. Profoundly beautiful in its humanity. I really felt I had witnessed theatre making at its most raw, honest and potent. So much going on. Bruce Gladwyn is genius!
This is what a Festival is about. Interesting to read all of the great local acts this year are not really festival pieces however, and are self -presenting. It seems the local content has really saved what would have been a very thin offering from Brett Sheehy this year.
Totally think the lighting show is again very lame this year. Nothing compared to Electric Canvis' Adelaide outing. looks nothing like the image in the Guide. Only a marginal improvement on 2009's pissy avenue of lights.

Couldn't help but feel for those protesters outside the Maltouse, chanting against the show and calling for the right to 'veto' the script. They clearly had no idea about who and what they were targeting. Totally value their right to protest peacefully (and it made it all the more interesting) but couldn't comprehend for what. Maybe next year some garlic naans would go down better.
It made me wonder how it would have looked for the Hindu community had they been successful in having the show cancelled - wouldn't have done them any favours to be sure.
Thanks for the review - I was checking everyday for it.

Anonymous said...

Posters remorse on the garlic naan comment. I apologise.

Alison Croggon said...

Good point, Anon, on what might have happened if the calls have banning had succeeded. (Not that I can see how they could have.)

Geoffrey said...

" ... garlic naans ... " – excellent! Make sure these agitators don't track you down via your ISP Anon and git ya under the Racial Vilification and Discrimination Act.

Chris Kohn said...

Great review Alison. Brilliant show for all the reasons you've expressed. It's taken me a couple of days to really grasp the second meaning of the title. Genius conceit for a show, masterfully realised. Final act was perfect distillation of the ideas.

Emily Sexton said...

Thanks so much for helping unravel my thoughts on this magnificent piece of theatre Alison. There's so much to understand and think about.



errm... Chris? What's the second meaning...?!

Anonymous said...

Waaaah - I can't believe I didn't get to Melbourne to see this! Thanks Alison for your commentary which I came looking for... Here in Wollongong I've been completely oblivious to any controversy but Back to Back and Bruce Gladwin are the best and so thrilled to read your post Alison and everyone else's comments.

Sarah Miller

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Sarah - I can't believe there won't be other opportunities to see this. I hope you can. And Chris, Emily's not the only one wondering about the second meaning of the title...

Born Dancin' said...

Maybe a pun on 'verses'? Only thought of that after your own typo in the Rhinoceros post, Alison! Would be neat, though - Ganesh 'versing' events of history, storifying, refashioning myths... would be entirely appropriate (another pun).

Alison Croggon said...

Feels like a rather long bow... Mr Kohn, you have to explain it to us! There are people cudgelling their brains all over Melbourne!

Chris Kohn said...

I've probably confused people because I was referring to something so obvious that most people wouldn't have given it a second thought. The double entendre I was referring to is just the double entendre that explicitly underpins the whole how.

On the one hand, there is the battle depicted in the epic narrative (Ganesh journeying to Nazi Germany to retrieve the swastika), and on the other hand, there are the internal battles of an artist working in a highly complex political space, as explored so beautifully through the backstage meta-narrative.

In other words, my "second meaning" refers to the dialectic internal process of an artist grappling with their relationship to power and agency in this complex collaborative environment. The "intellectually able" artist can be seen (by others or themselves) as a remover of obstacles or deva of wisdom on the one hand, or a kind of autocratic dictator on the other. Naturally, the truth lies not on one side or the other, but in the productive tension between the two.

It reminds me of the left/right Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic at the heart of Marat/Sade, with its similar play/metaplay structure.

I haven't stopped thinking about this show since I saw it last week. I think the references people have been making to its "transparency" are particularly apt. At the same time, one of the things I love about the show is the way its artifices are so brilliantly concealed.

Every argument made in the show is artfully shadowed by its counter-argument - a result of the vision, inclusiveness and rigour of the company's creative processes, for sure.

benimadimben said...

just saw the show for the first time in geelong. extraordinary, obviously. won't wax lyrical about it here as i'm not sure anyone's still around to hear me (*voice echoes in the empty online chamber*) - but if there is, who are you "Bill"? Is is Bill Zappa? his response was one of the most articulate expressions of the Kantian beautiful I've ever read...!