Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Ganesh versus the Third Reich" and the question that was left for next time

Photo: Jeff Busby
It’s rare these days a play that stays with us. A play that occupies our thoughts for hours and days after leaving the theatre. A play we wish to discuss with others. A play we wish to see again, looking for more, looking for everything we know we missed the first time. “Ganesh versus the Third Reich”, by the Australian Back to Back Theatre (presented at Culturgest on 14 and 15 May), is a play that did this for me.
I was very happy to be able to see a performance by Back to Back Theatre in Lisbon, because they’re one of the very few companies that have managed to turn disability into a side-issue, not the main issue, and to place their productions on different stages around the world not as the minor work of intellectually disabled actors, but simply as interesting, challenging and exciting art.

The story in “Ganesh versus the Third Reich” – one of the stories - is that of Indian elephant-headed god Ganesh, travelling through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. The other story is that of the company itself, a kind of autobiography, a place where reality and fiction get mixed and where they share with us their creative process - the result both of internal questioning, as well as of external challenges and criticism. Both are stories of power: the power exercised by a fascist regime over its citizens (and especially, in this case, disabeld citizens) and the power of ‘normal’ people over ‘disabled’ people (in this case, of a non-disabled theatre director over intellectually disabled actors).

Reading the programme before the play started, I realised that the company had struggled with the issue of cultural appropriation and, at first, they had decided that they couldn't do this show.  Can Australian actors, who are neither Hindu nor Jewish, create and perform a story around a Hindu god and the Holocaust? Do they have the right to? Eventually, one reads in the programme, their way of thinking changed and the attempted self-censorship became the main argument to do the show. Things became even clearer when the company visited a building in Linz, Austria, that used to house a hospice for the intellectually disabled, people who, after the annexation of Austria, were exterminated by the Nazis. “If we couldn’t do this play, then who could?”, director Bruce Gladwin told us in a conversation after the show.

Photo: Candy Welz
At the same time, in the parallel story of the people involved in the construction of the play, many more issues come up. What is intelligence? Who’s considered disabled? Do the actors understand what they are doing? Can they distinguish reality from fiction? Is this something they want to do? Are they really involved? Is this ethical? Issues integrated in the story, but which are also part of the questioning the company promotes and the criticism it faces. This questioning is further intensified by the character of the manipulating director, the only one performed by a non-disabled actor. His role, intentions and ethical standards are openly questioned by one of the members of the cast. It’s obvious that he thinks he’s dealing with ‘lesser’ people. His abusive attitude may be subtle (for instance, when he softly asks one of the actors: “Have you got the mind of a goldfish?”) or open and out of control (when he attacks the actor who doesn’t understand the logic behind what he’s asking him to do or who simply doesn’t want to do what he’s told). The director’s physical appearance does not seem to be irrelevant or a mere chance in this context: aryan-looking, constantly changing clothes on stage and exhibiting his well-trained body, accentuating the contrast with the bodies of the other actors, challenging our perceptions of power, ability, beauty. In the end, it is those actors that unite and become stronger together, able to control and expel the director; we see the beauty in their solidarity towards the fellow actor verbally and physically abused.

Photo taken from the website of Back to Back Theatre
And finally, a challenge directly addressed to the audience: why are we there? What have we come to see? A freak show? Freak porn? It is the director who looks at supposedly empty seats asking these questions (and we are left thinking: “Are we supposed to answer?”). He believes that disability sells, there is a market for it. For him, Mark (the actor with the “mind of a goldfish”) is the most valuable / expensive person on stage: he’s obviously disabled, he’s the big attraction and, at the same time, he’s got the shortest role, the one he can handle.

I was puzzled with the fact that intellectual disabilty and all this questioning regarding the ethics around the work of the company had such a prominent place in the play. I hadn´t expected it, considering the reputation of Back to Back Theatre. After all, isn’t the whole purpose taking people’s mind away from the disabilty and ‘simply’ inviting them to see a play with professional actors? Bruce Gladwin explained, in the conversation that took place after the show, that this is not an issue that comes up in every production, but that it is a relevant issue in this specific story.

Photo: Candy Welz
It is shows of the quality of questioning and production of “Ganesh versus the Third Reich” that can actually have an impact on our mentality and stereotypical thinking regarding disability, either they openly discuss it in the script or not. It takes time and a number of close encounters, like this one, before we all get to feel more comfortable in dealing with disability and embracing it as a different state of normality. When the actors were asked to talk to us about their time in the company, I couldn’t understand what Mark Deans, an actor with Down Syndrom, answered. My natural reaction would have been to ask if his colleagues, who spend time with him and understand him better, could help us also understand what his answer was (it’s funny that this also happens in the play, when the director seeks more than once help to confirm what one or other actor has told him…). I had a quick look around the room and realised that, if I did such a thing, it would have been considered offensive to Mark. Everyone listened to his answer, without understanding, and stayed quiet. Maybe next time....

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Joaquim Jorge said...

It is like you explain... in my mind I felt a kind of intelectual earthquake and cant stop thinking about the play. It seems like small yet powerful replicas keep bursting... revisiting the bits and pieces of the play, the mixed feelings, the doubts, the misunderstandings, and the conversation in the end... five years to produce this play... such a ride for us the spectators. Disruptive and challenging. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and insights Maria.

Maria Vlachou said...

This is beautiful, Joaquim.... Thank you

Maria Carla Proença said...

Thank both of you for this wonderfully impressive experience and for your precious analysis on this creation...