Ganesh vs The Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt St, Southbank, Until October 9.
We can’t help telling other people’s stories – an inevitable thing, central to artistic endeavour. We can never really know what it is to be anyone else, but doesn’t imagination exist precisely to access experiences precluded from us by circumstance, to know things we cannot know any other way?
Back to Back’s Ganesh vs The Third Reich is courageous, confronting, intelligent and magisterially considered theatre. It doesn’t valorise imagination, but poses it as a tormenting problem. Hitler unleashed his imagination on the Jews, after all; and the towering achievement here is to stimulate discussion around issues of cultural appropriation, the rights and responsibilities of those who imagine and speak for others.
There are no easy answers. One initial scene powerfully illustrates imagination in conflict. Ganesh (Brian Tilley) has travelled to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika as an ancient symbol of life and good fortune. He encounters Dr. Mengele (David Woods). Ganesh tells the story of how he came to have an elephant head, while the ‘White Angel’ can see only a prisoner of nature, to be liberated under the scalpel of science.
Through disjointed episodes of corrective myth-making, the epic narrative attains a shadowy brilliance. In one highlight, a Jew escapes a concentration camp by train. He’s confronted by a salesman who asks after his female relatives, not knowing they’ve been murdered in Auschwitz. Ganesh is present, but silent – an elephant in the room.
If this were merely a story of Ganesh obliterating evil Nazis, it would be tacky and shallow. It isn’t. The bulk of the drama is meta-theatrical. From the outset, the ensemble confronts and argues over the enormity of the material they’re presenting, and the process used to create it.
Unsettling resonances accumulate. In a long, extemporised sequence, the director (Woods) embodies everything from political correctness gone haywire (praising even an actor who’s left the stage to have a shit) to opposite tyrannies – a rehearsal dispute morphs into the ugly spectacle of a skinhead bashing a disabled youth. Before that, the audience gets accused, directly, of attending the show to watch ‘freak porn’.
Is this an accusation we can entirely dodge? I doubt it. And that sense of doubt – so important to an ethical life – pervades every moment.
This is theatre that knows the swastika will always speak of Nazis as well as ancient religions, just as theatre by disabled performers can never escape the history of fools and freakshows. Back to Back struggles to find, and succeeds in finding, the profound beauty in that double-vision.
The dramatic force of the show’s ideas is condensed in its final moments. A marginal figure, Mark Deans, is unable to find a stable role in the play. He hovers at the edges. His moment in the sun comes, at last, through an act of casual cruelty – and Mark makes it bow wordlessly to the delight of being.