Photos – Jeff Busby
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is extraordinary theatre – challenging, provocative, and heart-warming – it is, as my friend said last night, something you are unlikely to have ever experienced. That is, of course, unless you have had the pleasure of seeing previous productions by the Geelong based Back to Back Theatre.
Back to Back Theatre, whose artistic director is Bruce Gladwin, works with an ensemble of actors who may be perceived as having an intellectual disability but who are better described, in their own words, as 'a group of individuals, the same yet different [who] … have vivid imaginations … work hard … and can act ...' Together they have created a number of works which have met with critical and popular acclaim both in Australia and across the world.
Small Metal Objects premiered at the 2005 Melbourne International Festival and Food Court at the 2009 Melbourne International Festival; both are still touring overseas. In 2011 The Melbourne Festival is treating audiences to the world premiere of Back to Back's latest work, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich was devised by the ensemble and was awarded the 2010 Kit Denton Felloship for performance writing. It is directed by Bruce Gladwin and performed by Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and David Woods.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a multi-layered work. At one level it is the story of the Hindu God, Ganesh, who travels to 1943 Germany to reclaim the Swastika. The elephant-headed, pot-bellied Ganesh is one of the five prime Hindu deities, son of Shiva and Parvati, the god of knowledge and thresholds, the lord and destroyer of obstacles. Until the Nazis appropriated the swastika, the symbol had been used for over 3,000 years, by various cultures, to represent life, sun, power, strength and good luck.
At another level Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is the story of the creation of the performance, the struggles experienced by the actors, with each other and with the development of the concept. Issues of truth and reality along with cultural appropriation and the right to tell a given story are integral to the work.
The performers take on a number of different roles, as themselves and as characters in their creative work. Brian Tilley made a wonderful Ganesha complete with beautiful, life-like elephant-head created by Sam Jinks. Simon Laherty was strong as a young Jew who had been spared by Mengele because he had a photographic memory. He also makes an impressive Hitler in the final confrontation with Ganesh. Scott Price's character was the one who raised questions and challenged the director (David Woods), whilst Mark Deans was the comedian of the group. David Woods (actor and artistic director of Ridiculusmus) plays, amongst other characters, the 'real life' director, desperately trying to hold the whole together and not always managing to do so.
The large Merlyn Theatre stage is used to full advantage with plastic curtains being moved to one side to open up the stage when the action relates to the 'reality' of the creation of the work, then pulled across to create some beautiful images and shadow plays when we enter the Ganesh story. One of the most memorable moments is an exchange between Levi (Simon Laherty) and a German (David Woods) on a train: a scene full of tension as we fear that Levi will be exposed as a Jew, but also with moments of laugh-out-loud humour. Mark Deans is a comic element throughout the work and yet his final scene, as he hides under a table, is truly poignant.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is theatre that pushes the boundaries, for performers and audience, asking us to think again about many of our preconceptions.
Malthouse Theatre and Melbourne Festival present a Back to Back Theatre production
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
Director Bruce Gladwin
Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Malthouse, 113 Sturt St Southbank
Dates: 29 September – 9 October, 2011
Times: Tuesday – Saturday 7:30pm. Sunday 9 October 5pm
Tickets: $26 - $58
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 03 9685 5111