Thursday, 29 December 2011

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

In near impossible-to-judge review category of favouriteculturething, there have been many contenders on which I may write more anon. Two stay headlocked.

In one corner, the dazzling behemoth of Infinite Jest, which has been the reading experience of my life, measured out in tea spoons across five months, two continents, and six conversations started by strangers purely because they saw I was reading it. I'd love to write more about why I've loved it so; perhaps when less daunted.

In the other corner: Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. This is a piece of theatre by Melbourne company Back To Back, directed by Bruce Gladwin and devised by its ensemble. Back To Back brilliantly and rigorously integrate performers with learning difficulties into the heart of their work. In part, this is a fable about the Hindu god Ganesh travelling through space and time to Germany, 1943, there to wrest the swastika, originally a Hindu symbol of luck and fertility, back from the Nazis. It's beautifully staged on a vast empty stage with plastic curtains drawn back and forth to cast shadows and project monochrome landscapes; then a literally blinding moment where Vishnu (one of several roles played by David Woods of Ridiculusmus) lifts up the bottom of a starry night to reveal the light behind the fabric of the cosmos.

There has been a storm around the production with some Hindu groups protesting at the portrayal of Ganesh. The defence has been that this is a warm and respectful representation, but as true as that is - Ganesh is undoubtedly a divine hero - it misses what I think is the real focus of this fundamentalist protest, indeed any fundamentalist protest at theatre. Theatre is playful representation of what if and what is, both together: make believe and believe. But fundamentalism is fundamentally about one level of belief and only one: their word made flesh. It's anti-play.

And here is the other half of the piece. Having hit genuine concerns during the devising process about the rights and wrongs of telling this story, Back To Back's response was to tell a story of the piece's making incorporated inside the piece. So 'director' David struggles with the other actors and with himself, his initially pitch-perfect political correctness in valuing their every contribution becoming more controlling, bending sinister. The cast protest when Mark, an actor with Down syndrome, is cast as Hitler. He doesn't know who Hitler was, they argue. He doesn't understand the Holocaust. And more than that, he can't distinguish between what is real and what is play. But that's exciting, says David. Look. Look at these empty seats (in which we are sat). Imagine the audience there. And then he charges into a tirade against that imagined audience as perverts, into freak-porn. Meanwhile Mark sits there grinning in the midst of the arguments, blithely playing. You have to check yourself to remember that this is being played, has been rehearsed, as levels of reality collapse in your head. It's ruthlessly funny, like the best episode of South Park ever, but where it hurts to laugh. Every performance - indeed everything about it - is absolutely rigorous. At the last, Mark is waiting for his mum to come pick him up but David wants to go, so he starts Mark on a game of hide and seek. Mark is under the table as David counts and tiptoes his way out. Mark is still under the table, playing playing hide and seek, just being there, as the lights contract to a spot. It's an image that won't leave me.


Anonymous said...

It'd be even more gutsy for them to do a play about Mohammad or Jesus versus the Third Reich? Any chance of that?

You are too quick to dismiss the concerns of Hindu groups- they did not seek a ban. They only sought a more respectful depiction of Ganesh. Thinly veiled inneundo about the length of Ganesh's trunk are not respectful. Nor are Rambo like depictions of any object of worship - present in the play's promotional material.

But it's just so easy to tar people we don't like as fundamentalists without hearing them out, right?

You'd think the theatre company would actually consult with the Hindu community - but no!

TS said...

Hello Anonymous

Thanks for commenting.

I believe that Back To Back arrived at this subject because of the swastika, a symbol with meaning for both Ganesh and Hinduism and one hand, and the Nazis on the other. I felt the play was about representation and symbols, rather than 'doing' a religion. It wouldn't have been valid to have 'done' another religion in this particular context.

I'm not a believer, so it's fair to say I don't know the nature of Hindu concerns, although the company had consulted at least one Hindu group who were quoted in the programme. All I can is that as an outsider who knew nothing about Ganesh, it left me with nothing but respect and admiration.

And I actually wasn't using 'fundamentalist' as a perjorative term here, rather seeking to distinguish fundamentalism as seeking a single fundamental description of the world rather than different levels of representation.

All the best to you.