Meta-theatrical magic

Caroline Wake: Back to Back, Ganesh versus the Third Reich

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre

Like a sports fan avoiding the final score so as to enjoy watching the game later, I have tried to avoid reviews of Back to Back Theatre’s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. But it can’t be done, not completely, and certainly not for three years. The show premiered at the Melbourne Festival in 2011 and has toured to cities in Europe, North America and Asia before finally arriving in Sydney in 2014. Along the way everyone from Alison Croggon to Ben Brantley has reviewed it and so, despite my best efforts, I arrive at Carriageworks full of anticipation. I am not disappointed.

The show, as you probably know, alternates between two realities. The first is that of the rehearsal room, where an ensemble of actors with perceived disabilities are working with a director to create a show about Ganesh, the Hindu God of Overcoming Obstacles, who travels to Germany in order to reclaim the Swastika. This storyline is established in the first scene, with Simon Laherty, Mark Deans and Brian Tilley discussing who will play which character. Brian, who is playing Ganesh, suggests that Simon and Mark might like to play obstacles, but Simon thinks they’d rather play something “more exciting.” They settle for “two Jews on the run from the Nazis.” The audience giggles nervously. The second reality focuses on Ganesh himself and his journey across continents. This storyline is established in the second scene, which is staged in English and Sanskrit. The only actor without disability in the ensemble (Luke Ryan, playing David the director, the role originally devised and performed by David Woods) stands in front of the transparent plastic curtain to narrate and translate the scene, while Simon as Ganesh stands behind it, backlit in silhouette. On its own, each story line would be intriguing but perhaps not gripping; together they are compelling and complex.

The aesthetics of the two story lines are very different. The scenes from the play-within-the-play are explicitly theatrical and very beautiful; we watch as they are assembled and then disassembled. In one scene, chairs are placed on a table, a plastic curtain is pulled across and animated mountains are projected onto the scene. Suddenly the actors appear to be sitting in a train hurtling through the Alps. The music in these scenes is also lush, thick with tingling sitars, rumbling cellos and occasionally a single female voice. In contrast, the aesthetics of the rehearsal room are pared back. There is no music, the curtains are pulled to the side and the lighting becomes flat, almost fluorescent.

Back to Back’s work is often characterised by self-reflexivity, but Ganesh Versus the Third Reich takes this to yet another level by incorporating critical responses to earlier Back to Back shows. The rehearsal scenes stage several conversations, some of which could occur in any company dealing with the politics and ethics of cultural appropriation. Others, however, could only be had by or about Back to Back. One of the main concerns is that the actors do not fully comprehend what they are doing. Another of the players, Scott Price declares that Mark “doesn’t understand what is fiction and what is not,” adding that he has a mind “like a goldfish.” Incredibly, the director puts this proposition directly to Mark, who replies ambiguously, “goldfish, whale, penguin, octopus, seal, whale, shark, Sea World.” The animal theme continues when conversation turns to the spectators. Speaking to an anticipated but now actual audience, the director says, “You people have come here because you want to see an aquarium or a zoo.” Simon interjects with “I am not liking this,” to which David replies, “I’m just showing you how you can create edgy, exciting material when you are not sure what is real and what is not.”

Finally the conversation turns to the director himself. “He’s manipulating all of us,” says Scott; “He’s a good director,” counters Simon. In truth David is both. Early on, he is encouraging and cajoling, telling Brian, “You have put on paper an amazing possibility.” But as rehearsals progress, he becomes increasingly abusive. In one scene, he lies outright and in another he becomes enraged about a simple bit of blocking. This rehearsal room fight segues into the last scene of the hero’s journey, where Ganesh confronts Hitler and kills Dr Mengele. With the roar of Ganesh still ringing in our ears, we return to the rehearsal room one last time, where David commits one last act of abuse. Telling Mark they are going to play hide and seek, David lets Mark hide under a desk while he packs his things and leaves. Watching Mark waiting to be found by a director who has left the building makes me feel about as desolate as I have ever felt.

In the same way that revealing the mechanics of theatre enhances rather than diminishes its magic, having a performance incorporate our concerns about it seems to amplify rather than lessen them.

Like the suspect who confesses that he was lying earlier but is now telling the truth, Back to Back confronts its audience with a decision. Does this meta-theatrical confession make the show all the more honest or more dangerous? No matter how many reviews you have read, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich will test you, in every sense of the word.

Back to Back Theatre, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, director Bruce Gladwin, devisors Mark Deans, Marcia Ferguson, Bruce Gladwin, Nicki Holland, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, Kate Sulan, Brian Tilley, David Woods, Luke Ryan, lighting Andrew Livingston, bluebottle, design, animation Rhian Hinkley, composer Johann Johannsson, costumes Shio Otani, CarriageWorks, Sydney 12-15 March

‘We’re People Who Do Shows,’ Back to Back Theatre, Performance, Politics, Visibility, edited by Helena Grehan and Peter Eckersall (Performance Research Books, 2013) will be reviewed in RealTime 121, June-July.

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 43

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014
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