Elephant in the Room

Why an Australian play, 'Ganesha Versus the Third Reich', is shaking up the international theatre circuit.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi | Updated: July 7, 2014 12:00:24 am
Scene from the play. Scene from the play.

When the Edinburgh International Festival is held in Scotland next month, one of the chief attractions will be a play in which Indian deity Ganesha travels to Hitler’s Germany, determined to get back the swastika. A plot that pits a god against a human with nothing less than the symbol of spirituality — and brutality — at stake could be epical by itself, but it’s not why ‘Ganesha Versus the Third Reich’ has become an iconic production of the international theatre circuit.

The play by Australian company, Back to Back Theatre is described by its director Bruce Gladwin, 48, as really being about “manipulation, at a massive geopolitical scale as well as at a subtle interpersonal level”. It is a play within a play; the outer casing being of a young theatre actor, who employs actors perceived to have intellectual disability to mount a production about Ganesha visiting the Fuehrer’s Germany.

The director’s misuse of power over his actors is mirrored in the totalitarianism of Hitler and the murder of millions. “At one point, the director becomes abusive and the actors band together and say, ‘Enough, you cannot treat us like this’, says Gladwin. At a metafictional level, the script pushes forth questions about who can tell a story and who can listen to a story, but authority remains one of its main contentions.

Even the audience cannot escape becoming complicit in the power play. “When an actor walks out on a stage, the audience recognises him instantly as a disabled person. There’s a dilemma — is this person with disability playing a person with disability or is he playing a normal person like me? This creates the first tension about power and the manipulation of power,” says Gladwin.

Back to Back comprises professional actors who are all specially abled, with Ganesha being played by Brian Tilley, who suffers from a form of autism, making ‘Ganesha Versus the Third Reich’ a case study for professionals working in the field of physical challenges across the world.

The play, which premiered in 2011 and has been staged in the US, England, Germany, France and Helsinki, will follow up Edinburgh with Switzerland and Croatia. It isn’t likely to stop by India any time soon. “We would love to,” says Gladwin, who has lost count of the awards they have picked up.

He does recall the beginning of the play: “A number of years ago, we were working on a play that didn’t have a text or language, and we noticed that one of our actors, Rachel, was obsessed with Ganesha. She would make 30-40 drawings of Ganesha each day. Till then, I was aware of him but not familiar with the richness of the Hindu text and Ganesha’s place in it. When I began to research, I found a certain pertinence to the obsession that Rachel, who is affected by Down’s Syndrome, had with the God of Obstacles,” says Gladwin.

The play maintains Back to Back’s deep, frequently disturbing, sense of humour (“Since we work with the hearts of people who have disability, our plays are idiosyncratic at times and funny,” explains Gladwin). British newspaper The Guardian has called ‘Ganesha Versus the Third Reich’, “dark and subversive” and “often very funny — bubbling with joyful absurdity — but the humour prickled at your conscience.

Gladwin and his cast never shied away from verbalising the things liberal sensibilities deem morally wrong. Things such as: that actor has the mind of a goldfish, or the audience are gorging on ‘freak porn’. The laughter, increasingly uncomfortable, finally dies when the show’s fictionalised director, meticulously played by David Woods of British performance duo Ridiculusmus, loses his politically correct composure and physically attacks the cast.

This might be fiction — but Woods at this moment is wearing an SS uniform, and the attacks carried out by Nazi Germany on people with disabilities are brutally factual”. Gladwin, however, is being quite serious when he describes the production as “the narrative of Google”, given his research online, especially into the various Nazi theories.

He supplemented this by reading the Ganesh Puran, talking to academicians who specialise in representation of the god in popular culture, such as Indian films, and watching Jai Santoshi Ma, an old, forgotten Bollywood hit. “Then, we invited a collective of Hindu scholars and leaders to watch the play,” he says.

Gladwin is now busy with other gods. An idea that the group at Back to Back explored at an Artists in Residency programme at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London recently was on “obsolete gods no longer worshipped and the stories of those who were destroyed by their own success”. “There are a number of Nordic and Greek gods who don’t have a following anymore and it would be interesting to explore that,” he says. Meanwhile, Ganesha travels the world.

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