The elephant(head) in the room

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Deities and disabilities collide on stage as Ganesh reclaims the swastika in the Sydney premier of Back to Back Theatre’s play

Ganash versus Third Reich

Back to Back Theatre’s award-winning Sydney premier of Ganesh Versus The Third Reich (12-15 March) is a powerful play that confronts its audience with challenging material. Showing at Carriageworks, this play is devised and performed by actors that nominate themselves as having intellectual disabilities. It not only explores the concept of who has the right to tell a story, as well as have their story told, it also looks at what would happen were Ganesh to go back in time to reclaim the swastika symbol from Hitler?
Winner of the 2012 Helpman Award for Best Play, the Age Critics’ Award 2011 for best new work at the Melbourne Festival, as well as three 2011 Australian Green Room Awards for Best Director, Best Production and Best Ensemble, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich premiered in 2011 in Melbourne and has since toured 18 cities worldwide.
“We knew our narrative was morally fraught”, says Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of Back to Back Theatre, as well as director, devisor and designer of the show. “It was too dangerous for a little theatre company from Geelong to appropriate Hindu Gods and create a fairy-tale within the Holocaust”, he states. And for this reason, the play stayed in the devising stages for a few years. “Over time our thinking shifted”, notes Gladwin, “and our self-imposed censorship, our reasoning that we could not create the work, became our rationale for bringing it to life”. The fact that they thought they shouldn’t do the piece ended up being the reason for taking it off the shelf and onto the stage.
Indian Link spoke to Alice Nash, Back to Back Theatre’s Executive Producer, to find out how the performance came about.
“This visually dynamic piece of art took about three years from start through to finish, including workshopping it, allowing the ideas to settle, as well as working on other projects at the same time” explains Nash.
“Rita Halabarec and Sonia Teuben, two actors who have now left our ensemble, set us off on the narrative journey,” says Gladwin. “Rita spent nine months drawing Ganesh in blue biro on reams of white paper, while Sonia birthed a terrifying Neo Nazi skinhead”.
“Allowing marginalised voices to be heard”, is how Nash describes the aims of the show, which also raises ethical and moral dilemmas. The actors voice their concerns of whether or not they should be allowed to cover roles such as Ganesh in the performance. “He doesn’t understand what is fiction and what is not”, says one actor about another actor. This heated meta-theatrical debate also extends to the audience.
“While the identity of the company is grounded in disability, our interest is in art that touches on issues that matter and speak to all”, states Nash.
“Moved, surprised, terrified”, is Nash’s description of the audience’s reactions so far to Ganesh Versus The Third Reich (prior to the show opening in Sydney). “The audience is (after all) 50% of the show”. She also explains that their reactions vary depending on their backgrounds and religious beliefs.
“If you are Jewish, the show might be about the Holocaust to you”, says Nash. “Or the show might be about disabilities if you have one, or if you’re a theatre maker it might be a meditation on theatre. Or if you are Hindu, the play will be about Ganesh for you”.
Ganesh is, after all, the hero of the show. Nash and the other members of Back to Back Theatre visited India to research Indian folklore surrounding Ganesh, where they discovered that, according to Nash, “He always wins”.
They were more than aware about the issues surrounding the depiction of a Hindu god and wanted to take the “utmost care” with it. After protests when the show premiered in Melbourne, the theatre company invited leaders of the Melbourne Hindu community to come and watch the show. And “some minor changes” in Ganesh’s depiction were made based on their feedback.
Even though Ganesh’s story covers a lot of symbolic territory, like overcoming obstacles, it is but one confronting part of the whole show. Luckily, he is also performed in a commanding manner by Brian Tilley.
Although the audience is at first lulled into thinking that the entire play is being improvised on the spot, as the piece progresses, it is revealed that this is in fact, not the case. The use of simple props further this, such as tables, the Hitler moustache, plastic sheets with scenery painted on them and projections. They may seem simple, but are used so effectively that you are transported into Ganesh’s journey. The train scene is a perfect example, where Ganesh is the silent elephant in the carriage.
Immediately after each scene from the play within a play, you are sharply drawn back into the actor’s rehearsal space as the florescent lights are switched back on.
The vastness of the space on stage at Carriageworks where microphones are needed to hear the actors, increases the distance that most impose between themselves and the topics dealt with, in the show.
“You’ve all come to see a freak show. A zoo”, is one of the lines directed at and used to make the audience unsettled. Luke Ryan, the director of the play within the play, who looks like he’s just come from the set of Bondi Rescue, utters these words. Is his character exploitive?
Physically Ryan’s body provides a stark contrast to his other cast members; Mark Deans, Laherty, Scott Price and Tilley.
But there are also small moments of beauty in the piece, including the hugs that Laherty offers to Deans. Particularly because Laherty acts as both an oppressed Jewish man with intellectual disabilities (only kept alive by being an object of curiosity to Dr Mengele), as well as Hitler. Laherty is the very definition of stage presence, not only at these two characters, but also when he plays himself.
These hugs symbolise what it means to be a human being, and contrast to the final moving scene where Deans is left hiding under a table in the rehearsal room in a game of hide and seek, which no-one else is playing. It is an act of casual cruelty that has impressive dramatic weight behind it that is further heightened by the extended scene. This character who has been the focus of many of the cast’s arguments, is left waiting for his mum.
It would be impossible to walk out of Ganesh Versus The Third Reich without reconsidering your perceptions about what theatre is, the ethics of the cultural appropriation of gods and political figures, and what it means to have a disability. Truly thought provoking theatre.