Brian Tilley (l) and Simon Laherty (r) in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. Photo Credit Jeff Busby.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
May 22 – 25, 2013
I love the idea of a play that pits the elephant-headed Hindu deity, Ganesh, up against Hitler in a fight for the rightful ownership of the swastika symbol. I also love the idea of a play about actors of varying intellectual abilities (from slightly impaired to almost non-communicative) trying to write and produce a piece of theatre under the thumb of an increasingly mercurial able-minded director. I’m even fine with all these ideas being part of the same production. But when this translates into an overstuffed ninety minutes that is far more conceptually interesting than experientially fulfilling, it’s hard for me to love Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.
Devised and Directed by Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director of Australia’s Back to Back Theatre Company, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich features five actors, four of whom are intellectually challenged, as they conceive of and rehearse an original play. The story they’ve chosen to tell depicts what would happen if Ganesh, God of Obstacles, were sent to earth to reclaim the swastika symbol that Hitler stole from the Hindu tradition and perverted with his evil intentions. Alternating back and forth between staged scenes of the show in progress and the rehearsal room, the audience is given two very different yet related plays to watch. Both narratives address issues of power, cultural appropriation, domination, the right to speak and be heard, possibility, limitations and hope. The Ganesh play, gives us these themes as starchy metaphor through the deity’s evolving love of a Jew, the lessening of his godly powers, his unflinching determination to get to Berlin, a run in with Joseph Mengele and his ultimate anticlimactic standoff with Hitler. Told through a mixture of German, Sanskrit and English and utilizing strikingly creative shower curtain-like set design and lighting, these moments certainly carry the weight of their historic and cultural gravity, but ultimately lack any emotional impact.
More interesting are the rehearsal room scenes which give us these same themes, this time directly through the heated discussions and arguments amongst the actors and with the director. Is it right for them to be playing gods and Jews, one actor asks? Should a less abled actor be allowed in the show? Will the audience only come to see the play for the ‘freak’ factor? Is it OK for intellectually disabled people to play at being someone else? And how far will these actors allow themselves to be pushed? These are interesting questions from a community we don’t hear enough from with many refreshingly honest, sometimes funny and vulnerable responses. There is no doubt that this is a group of brave and hard-working performers. At least the ones that could be heard and understood.
Too often we needed to strain to comprehend the more vocally compromised actors as they delivered ideas or arguments crucial to the discussion. The frustration lay not with the actor’s delivery, but at the production for not helping the audience follow along more clearly. Sure, you could get the gist, but that’s not the point. This is a play about having a voice, and if the audience isn’t privy to the breadth of what is being said, we then aren’t fully experiencing the play as we should. Far more problematic and unfortunate were the numerous audio lapses due to technical glitches. Throughout the play, several actor’s microphones went dead leaving whole scenes unheard and completely stripped of their meaning and effect.
But no need to dwell. If one scene goes unheard, there are twice as many where that came from. More arguments in rehearsal, often the same ones played over and over to greater or lesser success. More non-sequitur but visually stunning Ganesh scenes that land strangely hollow for such obvious metaphor. Plus there’s the false-feeling story arc that sees the director go from benevolent leader to cruel dictator bent on total domination. By the time the play lands at the frustratingly schematic and risibly staged rehearsal room climax, far too many potentially engaging scenes come and go with only a few hitting the sweet spots advertised by the play’s ideas.
“Challenging”, was the way one audience member described the show post curtain. Was that because the show challenged his ideas about people of different abilities and the questions they addressed? Or was it because he found trying to engage with a play that thwarts its audience in so many ways, challenging to connect with? I’m not sure which he meant. But I do know on which side of the challenge question I land and I’m terribly disappointed to be there.
For the guys and the girls – The idea for this show compels and the cast will win you over with their courage and honesty and humour. But the questions you are asked to think about are like confections whose taste disappears once you’ve eaten them, leaving the experience somewhat hollow. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – A play starring a mostly intellectually disabled cast is certainly something worth your time. However the bizarrely metaphoric and meta nature of the show will leave you less than pleased. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – You’ll really want to love this show. It’s intellectual, its ground breaking and it’s one of the more clever set and lighting designs around. But great ideas don’t always translate into great shows and this one runs far too away with itself even as it offers up some exciting moments. MAYBE SEE IT