In devising Ganesh vs. The Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre frequently asked themselves: what right they had to perform it? No-one in the cast is Hindu, no-one is Jewish, and how can you even begin to tackle the Holocaust? Thankfully for us they persevered, for the play is a darkly funny, challenging and often uncomfortable piece of theatre that asks difficult questions, and gives no easy answers.
Back to Back is an ensemble composed mostly of performers with intellectual disabilities. Clearly not afraid to push boundaries, this production repeatedly dives dangerously into issues of manipulation and exploitation. A conversation on a train has a German salesman attempt to sell a “mentally retarded” Jewish boy women’s stockings. The boy’s evident vulnerability and the strong sexual undercurrent of the conversation make this difficult and unsettling viewing. Moments later, the only actor without a disability, David Woods, playing the on-stage director, and also most of the evil characters, directly addresses the audience as “perverts” looking to see some “freak porn”.
Through all this, there are numerous moments of humour and beauty. The play’s main narrative is a whimsical story of the Hindu God Ganesh’s quest to reclaim the ancient Hindu Swastika symbol from Hitler. This story is told inventively with forests, the night sky, the Brandenburg Gate and a train ride through the Swiss Alps projected onto a series of hazy plastic backdrops.
However, for the company, the far more interesting story is that of the struggle to tell this tale. Frequently the actors break out of character and scene to raise ethical questions with their director. What are we doing? Is it good? How can we play Jewish people if we’re not Jewish? Is this real? In this “reality” we are in the cold and open space of the rehearsal room, with no way of avoiding these issues. Indeed as the primary narrative proceeds to a mostly satisfactory ending, the real story becomes increasingly challenging and violent. The actors fling insults at each other and the director flies into a rage. Finally we are left with the most unsettling image of all. Mark Deans, the most impressionable and vulnerable member of the cast is made by the director to play hide and seek. Happily hiding under a table, he smiles and giggles to himself long after the director exits the room, leaving him completely alone.
Having disabled people portraying the very Nazis who sought to exterminate them under the shocking auspices of operation T4 is a jarring and interesting device, though ultimately, it feels underdeveloped. The Ganesh story also seems to have lost some of its relevance, other than as a springboard for a discussion of responsibility and ownership over the stories we tell. One feels more insight or parallels could have been drawn from this narrative.
That being said, this is a thoroughly rewarding, surprisingly funny and insightful piece of theatre.