Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director of Australian regional theatre company Back to Back chats to Australian Stage arts journalist Dione Joseph in Edinburgh, as the company make it's Edinburgh International Festival debut.
Ganesh versus the Third Reich is a work that challenges boundaries of conception, ownership, authority and voice. That’s partially what makes it brilliant. The other part is that you are forced, repeatedly so, to question not just what you think – but why you think in that particular way.
“Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany was something that was very sensitive,” explains Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin, “For a long time we felt didn’t have the right to make such a work and it was fraught with a number of tensions; including from the very outset representation of an Indian deity and the Holocaust.”
And the company has received its share of critical responses (primarily from groups who hadn’t seen the show) but although aware that there would be a range of different responses to the work and its various frames, Back to Back was resolute in its decision:
“We got to a point when we thought the issues that are invoked within the piece are actually quite important and an incident in Brussels certainly contributed in cementing our decision. We were presenting a previous work and someone stood up in the Q&A after the show and said:
‘I don’t believe these actors made this work, I don’t believe they’re capable of making work such as this. I know people like this and I don’t think they have the capacity to make this.’
Such a response debating the ethics and morality around the piece was precisely what both Gladwin and his ensemble wanted amongst their audience – but this particular incident encouraged them to take the risk to “make a work which was about the power machinations of our society.”
“This essentially led us to making fictionalized autobiographies as a means of looking at a subtle manipulations of power – whether this be between a director and an actor or between psychologist and patient – there is always power associated within human relationships.”
Furthermore, as the work itself illustrates power takes on quite different manifestations especially when using a variety of symbols such as the swastika which as Gladwin argues, harbours great potency.
The work is incredibly ambitious, and its staging at the Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh brings together qualities of its archetypal nature and merges this with the very prosaic conversations of the rehearsal room. There are sequences of unadulterated chaos, paradigm shifts and direct addresses to the audience that challenge not merely the perception of the actors and the work itself – but the very process that led to the conception of such frames.
On the international stage touring such a work often elicits different reactions and Gladwin response to the notion of how the story and its ensemble tour globally is both thoughtful and reflective:
“As a company we employ actors with perceived intellectual disabilities and sometime how the show is received is determined how people with disabilities are perceived within that particularly country – and that often frames the work. We are often presented at numerous different art festivals so while not necessarily unified in their viewpoints there is a sense of cosmopolitanism to its reception.”
As a large-scale work performed in English, German and Sanskrit Ganesh versus the Third Reich engages with the challenges of making such a work in a rehearsal room and the notion of supremacy assumed by a director. However, at its core it is a journey of reclamation, one made by Ganesh as he travels to Nazi Germany and encounters along the way the various horrors of what unchallenged might can orchestrate – especially in concentration camps.
But the emphasis of the work as Gladwin has had to repeatedly re-assert to many in the past is not to show that actors with ‘perceived or actual intellectual abilities’ can ‘act’ but rather that as actors they are very able to engage with ambitious material to create a commentary through fictionalized versions of themselves.
“No one presumes that David the director (whose real name is also David) is actually that person,” says Gladwin, “So why should people assume that the other actors are simply ‘playing themselves’ in this work?”
He recollects a moment when during a radio interview he was greeted with the remarkably thoughtless request of asking to ‘list’ the various disabilities of the different members in his company.
“I gently tried to shift the question because to respond in such a way would, I feel, be a massive betrayal to my colleagues and everything we have worked for – but that is not an uncommon question.”
Such questions, including by those in the media continue to reflect the warped view that is still held towards those with any trace of difference outside the conventions of normality in certain societies.
Underlying the work is a strong commitment of refusing to be ‘othered’ and be denied the opportunity based on politics or polemics. This is the company’s raison d’etre to create what Gladwin describes as “intentionally unsettling work.”
“We’re asking the audiences to accept the premise about Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika and there is a blurring of reality between the actors and the audiences with the latter actually thinking the actors are playing themselves – but the reality is that people they don’t have that problem with non-disabled actors and the audience’s self-constructed façade can only go so far.”
But at the end of the day Back to Back theatre is not just about advocacy Gladwin argues.
“Sure our actors experience levels of independence, responsibility with their own money and there are undeniable ongoing social benefits around being an individual engaged with the world for all the ills for who we are and who are perceived to be – but our aim like any other company is ultimately to make great art.”
Top right – Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. Photo – Jeff Busby