“Some of us identify with being outsiders.
Some of us don’t. We wonder: what would we be outside of?”
This extract is taken from the mission statement of Back to Back Theatre – an Australian company formed of actors who are perceived by society to have a disability. It indicates the company’s aim in challenging notions of inclusion and exclusion. Their production, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, which forms part of the Edinburgh International Festival’s 2014 season, cuts right to the heart of this question. This is not a piece of theatre to be passively watched: it relentlessly confronts the activity of theatre-going itself, including rights of representation in acting, the blurred lines that should be monitored between fantasy and fiction, and the perverted nature of observation or even voyeurism that the theatre can facilitate.
Trying to explain, let alone ‘sell’ Ganesh Verses The Third Reich to another person is a challenge: the title is a confrontational, absurdist statement, but does little to indicate the depth and breath of social systems and perceptions that the play interrogates and questions. In brief, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich is an overload of the metatheatrical nature, as a group of actors try to develop and rehearse their production in which Ganesh is sent by Shiva to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis and reinstate it as a classical symbol of peace. The narrative continually alternates between scenes from the production of the play and the rehearsal room- comments such as “You really are a great actor” draw attention to the acting process as it is taking place. The stage is sparse and stripped back, exposed to its bare walls, and attention is repeatedly drawn towards the workings of the theatre; the movement of props, costumes and set. The non-disabled director of the group, played by David Woods, appears at first to be the facilitator of the rehearsal process, the glue that binds the company together. However, he quickly morphs into a tyrant, disconcertingly oppressing, manipulating and controlling his actors. Director ‘offstage’ and dictator in the play are observed in parallel, in a dialogue between cruelty and empowerment that concludes in a powerful statement of uprising.
Ganesh Versus The Third Reich explores notions of censorship and limitation. Through the performative medium of theatre, the company require their audience to question the performative nature of censorship as a social action we dictate for each other. The play explores voices, voicelessness, and permission to represent a story an actor may not own, or even relate to, in a sensitive and truthful fashion. Further, the whole piece is a marvellous exposé on the cultural investment we place in symbolism. The sheer emotional range demonstrated by the ensemble is quite extraordinary, as moments of gravity are counterbalanced regularly against piercing humour. Particularly poignant was the concluding scene, in which epic philosophical statement is abruptly abandoned as Mark (played by Mark Deans) is left alone onstage playing hide-and-seek. The play is pulled back from its reflective precipice and the vulnerability of the individual is exposed beneath.
Provocative and completely captivating throughout, I can only conclude by saying that should you ever get the opportunity to watch this production, I urge you to do so. I can say with confidence that you will not regret the investment.