Do we have the right to tell another person’s story? Who among us has the right to tell the stories of those who can no longer tell it themselves? Such is one of several themes in this multi-layered production by Back2Back Theatre.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich starts as a simple tale about a Hindu god (Ganesh) heading to Nazi Germany in order to reclaim the swastika from Hitler and thus save the universe from the wrath of the god Shiva, who threatens to destroy it as punishment for humanity’s perversion of the symbol. The story is presented to the audience as a folk tale with moralistic lessons over how we should treat our fellow man.
However, the play is also the story of the creation of this myth and the cast and crews efforts to turn it into a beautiful and meaningful story for an audience. The actors and director debate on stage, they become increasingly frustrated with each other. The director becomes increasingly authoritarian as the actors struggle to make their concerns heard.
The premise is deceptively simple but the key twist in the tale is that (with the exception of one actor, Luke Ryan, who plays the director in the piece) all the actors on stage (who were also responsible for devising the work) have intellectual disabilities. The juxtaposition of disabled actors playing Nazis who would no doubt have viewed these people as less than human is stark. In one particularly poignant segment Ganesh befriends a concentration camp inmate (played by an excellent Simon Laverty) who is kept alive by Dr. Mengele solely because of his disability, while the rest of his family is killed. Back in the rehearsal room one of the actors (Scott Price) expresses his frustration with the piece – questioning their right and even their mental capacity to represent Hinduism and the Holocaust. The audience are challenged too, accused at one point of being their purely out of voyeurism – a desire to watch ‘freak porn’. The night I attended, one audience member felt compelled to respond “no” to the actors accusation. The tone was suitably defensive and seemed to prove the point that we may be uncomfortable with this subject material, we should be willing to confront our own beliefs and prejudices.
The stage craft used to bring this play to life is awe-inspiring. It uses several techniques including shadow puppetry, light and sound displays, and mixing between languages (German, English and Sanskrit) with the use of surtitles – in order to bring the folk tale scenes to life. One particular scene on a train is built out of chairs, tables and shadows created through cleverly placed plastic sheeting and describing it in words cannot do it justice. It is one of those moments that works because it is pure theatre and in any other medium the impact would be diluted.
If I have one criticism of Ganesh, it is that it is a slow burn of a piece that may put off less patient theatre goers. My friend and I had bought tickets purely based on the title and my knowledge of the play was limited to a vague understanding that it had been received well in New York and Edinburgh. I knew nothing of the theatre company’s backstory nor what I was in store for. In part due to my ignorance, the switches back and forth between folk tale and rehearsal space confused me. The beautiful bells and whistles accompanying the folk tale sections of the play were so good that I found myself disappointed when we were back in the room with the actors, working on the shows creation. At this point I was searching for plot and twist but found there was none to be had. Further, when it dawned on me that the cast had learning disabilities I worried that much of the good press surrounding the play was driven by a societal reluctance to criticise those whose physical and mental challenges create further barriers to produce something of substance. This is the equivalent of a pat on the head and a sing song voice saying ‘Well look at you, doing your play!”. It is insulting to the performers of the piece who put forward their work to be judged against the entire canon of theatre and not as a piece of ‘freak porn’.
I’m happy to report that by the 50 minute mark my reservations were summarily dismissed. One of the cast members starts to question what they are doing and trying to achieve and the penny dropped that what I was witnessing was not an attempt to include the learning disabled in the standard fare of theatrical story-telling, but was an exercise in examining the (Nazi-esque) assertion that biology is destiny by subverting the way in which the question is typically asked – in essence the object of the question (in this case the intellectually disabled) becomes subject (in that they ask the question of themselves and challenge the audience to consider the it from the same point of view). At one point Price accuses another actor (Mark Deans) of having the mind of a goldfish. The actor in turn is challenged to respond to the claim.
I could go on at length about this piece. As an experimental piece, it is the type work that can only be adequately expressed through theatre. It is skillfully crafted and performed, asks big questions and forces the audience to consider them. For those jaded by standard theatrical fare and also for those who fear that theatre has become too much about creating art for art’s sake, this play is a breadth of fresh air. There is so much food for the soul here that I imagine I will be processing the show for a while to come.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in the O’Reilly Theatre Dublin until Saturday 4th October. More information about the play can be found on Back to Back Theatre’s website.