Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

THERE are few things as exciting and enchanting as attending a play that you know nothing about – and when the story starts unfolding, you’re swept off into a whole other world.

That’s the glorious power of live theatre at its best.

The Australian Back to Back company’s Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, one of the showpieces at the Edinburgh Festival, took a long time making because it didn’t come easily, but that’s exactly why this is such a heart-warming production.

The company are described as a group who create new forms of contemporary theatre imagined from the minds and experiences of an ensemble of actors with disabilities, and they hope audiences will leave intoxicated by their shows.

The director, Bruce Gladwin, has been accused of exploiting his actors. Yet for those in the audience who didn’t know of their disabilities, it will have dawned slowly. One sees rather than experiences the impact. But they quickly address the issue, countering any attack with their own.

The cast might be intellectually challenged but they incorporate that into the story brilliantly. How they are looked at, view themselves and are put into the place of “the other” all come into play in a way that contributes to this multi-layered work.

Without becoming maudlin about their disability, they celebrate who they are in a way that determines their place in the world without being marginalised. In general, we’re so at odds with “the other” that any reminder of how much poorer we would be without the strength of the individual seems obvious – yet is so easily ignored. But they never let you off the hook.

Apart from the content and the performances, the innovative staging contributes with imaginative use of plastic curtains pulled across the stage with the different backdrops painted or pasted with specific scenes, which are then lit in a most extraordinary and effective manner. With the actors telling their story, we’re reminded how universal storytelling can be. This one stretches across continents and people in a way that confirms the lives we live and how we affect one another in everything we do.

Ostensibly this is a story about Ganesh, who travels to Hitler’s Germany to reclaim the ancient Sanskrit symbol of well-being, which has been appropriated as the Nazi swastika. There he meets a disabled Jewish boy whose life has been saved precisely because of his disability and Dr Mengele’s obsession with the master race.

But the play is also obsessed with the telling of the story. Who has the right? When is it authentic? And when is the director manipulating his actors in a way that’s questionable? Even the audience is reprimanded for coming to this freak show. Why else are they there?

What is expected is that you engage. They will do the rest, and they do that magnificently. This is theatre of the senses as the emotional impact envelops you from start to finish.

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich is what makes this extraordinary festival a marvellous showcase. All the way from Australia, theatre keeps shifting those boundaries in an attempt to tell stories that will change perceptions. Nothing does that more effectively than live theatre, especially when you are playing this imaginatively.

It also affirms the risks and those willing to take them to the advantage of those of us fortunate to witness something this magical.