While most theatre companies purport to have fresh and challenging productions, the truth is that few are able to achieve genuine innovation or originality. Ganesh Versus The Third Reich manages both in unexpected, occasionally confronting ways. Back To Back Theatre’s Executive Producer, Alice Nash, tells us how this internationally lauded play came to be, and how an elephant-headed Hindu God and the Nazi FЯhrer make for unlikely bedfellows.
From the production stills alone, you know you’re in for something different. A seemingly uncomfortable Adolf Hitler looks sidelong at a towering figure beside him dressed in a crisp grey suit and sporting a large, realistic elephant head. Originating in Geelong and devised by five actors with intellectual disabilities, it has already achieved glowing reviews and in 2012 won the Helpmann Award for Best Play.
“All of our works are written by our actors,” Alice explains, “and it always comes from something unexpected and interesting. This story came from two places. The first was from an actress who is just obsessed with Ganesh. We started a creative journal which was her showing us hundreds of drawings of Ganesh that she had done. Meanwhile, we were working with another actor, taking her voice and making it really, really low, and seeing how that changed her physicality. Would it make her, say, seem more brutal? One day she shaved her hair really tightly and was wearing this bomber jacket, and she looked like a neo-Nazi. And then … we did this terribly embarrassing thing. We googled ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘Ganesh’, to see what we could find, and realised there was this connection between the ancient Hindu symbol of the swastika which was appropriated by the Nazis. From that came this seemingly ridiculous narrative of Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to get the symbol back from Hitler.”
Given this production not only blends Hinduism and the Holocaust, but also directly confronts the audience’s own complicity in how the past is remembered, I ask Alice how conscious Back To Back have been about the sensitivity of these topics.
“We definitely feel a responsibility, especially in telling stories that aren’t our own. The show in itself is about who has the right to tell certain stories, about which voices are heard on our stages, who has the right to be seen, to be heard. These stories emerged as ways of addressing larger issues like power, appropriation and voice. It touches very directly on the Holocaust, and yes, the show represents a Hindu deity on stage, so we undertook an immense amount of research and conversation about how best to do that. I feel strongly that though the show has difficult moments, I believe we’ve managed to get our head around some big topics that are meaningful for our audiences.”
It sounds like an enthralling, if confronting, experience for the audience and before we end I wonder if there have been performances that were not able to get the audience onside.
“Every audience is different. You can often tell how an audience might be as soon as they sit down. Some audiences sit down and they’re already leaning forward in their seats, they’re ready. Some audiences are a bit more … sceptical. There are two narratives here, and we move back and forward between those two realities very quickly, sometimes not giving the audience much of a clue. We’re really interested in how that audience is constructing which reality, and what it means to them about what they’re interpreting. I feel pretty certain that by the end most of the audience have gone through a pretty arduous journey and they’re still with us. It’s a very circuitous path. We never really know where we’re going until we get there.”