While the message is perhaps at times fumbled this latest production from Back to Back is a tender and intriguing work.
There’s going to be a play, and Simon’s going to be in it. ‘You can be in it too,’ he tells the somewhat indifferent Mark Dean. ‘Oh Yeah,’ says Mark. With a playful perhaps sotie-style humour Simon crosses back and forth across a broad and empty stage as the other performers set things up trying to divine from David, the ‘director’ what the play will be about. ‘Power’ says David as he dresses to the side of stage as Vishnu. Ganesh versus the Third Reich
is to be about power. But who’s power? And to what purpose?
On the one hand this latest production from Back to Back Theatre is a fantastical story about the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, sent to earth in 1943 on a quest to recapture the swastika from Hitler who has misappropriated the ancient symbol. But interleaved within is a play about the making of the play; where the performers struggle with the taboos being challenged in taking on such subject matter; with working with one another as an ensemble; and with the process of creating a work from improvisation, subjugating creative freedom into something that is directed and repeated and controlled.
The five performers in this production each play a number of roles such as Brian Tilley playing ‘himself’ and Ganesh, Simon Wood playing himself as the Director, Dr Mengele and Vishnu among other roles, and Simon Laherty playing in turns ‘himself’, a Jewish prisoner in Aushchwitz Levi and Hitler.
Back to Back Theatre, as they describe themselves, ‘creates new forms of contemporary theatre imagined from the minds and experiences of a unique ensemble of actors with a disability, giving voice to social and political issues that speak to all people.’ This is the fourth of the Geelong-based company’s works to premier at the Melbourne Festival, following soft
(2002), small metal objects
(2005) and Food Court
The epic tale of Ganesh’s cross continental journey serves as a medium to explore what is out of bounds, and why. It seems the intent is to contrast audience preconceptions of what is ‘appropriate’ material for theatre and public discussion with those notions they might have about what is ‘appropriate’ for a theatre company like Back to Back.
But it is the making-of that is the real focus of the work. As the ‘Ganesh play’ is rehearsed initially comic sledging and witty interplays become increasingly uncomfortable, as the performers are bullied, talked down to and frightened by their ‘director’ David (David Woods). Scott (Scott Price) particular struggles with the purpose of the play and challenges David’s leadership. The audience becomes increasingly disconcerted too. What is real story? Who’s play is this? Are the performers being empowered or patronised, and is the audience equally complicit?
In this production the large Malthouse stage is used to wonderful effect, at times bare and open, dressed with little more than a few simple tables and chairs, it is the ubiquitous rehearsal space. Then with the use of screen-printed plastic curtains dragged across the stage by the performers, various multi-layered shadow play scenes are created, like lino-cuts writ large, transporting the story to a mythical and at times breathtaking world.
Andrew Livingston’s lighting design and music by Lachlan Carrick make the most of the bare space in the more sinister scenes; paring everything back.Costumes, designed by Shio Otani, are simple and charming from the sparkle in the eyes of the Ganesh headpiece (design and construction Sam Jinks & Paul Smits) to the knitted swastika worn on Hitler’s arm.
Ganesh versus the Third Reich
is raw, heartfelt; it feels personal; and perhaps because of that it suffers from a lack of polish and editing; it could be tightened. The sequences of events seem at times confused and when the climax comes it feels a little forced. Even so, this is entertaining, challenging and thought-provoking theatre.
Star Rating: 3 stars
Ganesh versus the Third Reich
29 September – 9 October 2011
Director, Devisor & Design Bruce Gladwin
Performed by Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley & David Woods
Additional Performance Georgina Naidu
Devisors Mark Deans, Marcia Ferguson, Bruce Gladwin, Nicki Holland, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, Kate Sulan, Brian Tilley & David Woods
Lighting Design Andrew Livingston, Bluebottle
Design & Set Construction Mark Cuthbertson
Design & Animation Rhian Hinkley
Composer Johann Johannsson
Mask Design & Construction Sam Jinks & Paul Smits
Costume Design Shio Otani
Creative Development Actors Brian Lipson, James Saunders & Sonia Teuben
Stage Manager Berni Sweeney
Sound Design & Mix Lachlan Carrick
Script Consultant Melissa Reeves
Support Worker Jo Leishman
Sound System Design Hugh Covill
Lighting Operator Michele Bauer
Assistant Stage Manager Louise Miller