Edinburgh International Festival 2014 interview: Bruce Gladwin discusses Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

This article is from 2014

Edinburgh International Festival 2014 interview: Bruce Gladwin discusses Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

Photo: Jeff Busby

The elephant-headed Hindu god sets out to rescue the swastika from the Nazis

In Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, boundary-pushing theatre company Back to Back imagine the Hindu god Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany. Gareth K Vile discovers a unique and controversial performance in the making

Bertolt Brecht's innovation as a director was to encourage performances to unpick the magical trappings of theatre and remind audiences that what they are watching is neither real nor inevitable. Hoping to detach the spectator from a passive, emotional response, he insisted that a play must reveal itself as fantasy, and be observed in a spirit of intellectual contemplation.

It’s an approach that’s embraced in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, part of Edinburgh International Festival, where for much of the performance the actors debate whether they have the moral right to tell the story. Alongside this runs the core plot involving the elephant-headed Hindu god setting out to rescue the swastika from the Nazis. For Back to Back's artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, this awkward structure reflects the deeper moral issues in the play. 'It reflects our journey in the making of the show: we felt we had no right to make it,' he says. 'It's a difficult subject, it involves a lot of cultural appropriation: there is a question about who has the right to tell what story, [and about] the power issues around telling stories.'

Back to Back is made up of actors with both physical and mental disabilities, and the company has a reputation for challenging ideas about performance. 'It is one of the few companies that has a full-time ensemble left in Australia and it is known for creating highly original contemporary work using a devised process,' explains Gladwin. It’s a process which defines their final product; the questioning nature of the performances can be traced back to their methodology.

'For Ganesh, we started with trying to create a work with no text – so we spent a lot of time drawing and one of the actors was obsessed with Ganesh. And another actor, Sonya created a neo-Nazi skinhead character.' From here, technology came in. 'The show is a product of Google: we Googled Nazi and Ganesh and found a number of websites that said that Nazism had appropriated the swastika from Hinduism.'

Battling with the seriousness of the subject – the plot involved creating a 'hero's journey for Ganesh to reclaim his symbol and our story takes place in the middle of World War II and ends in a heart of darkness in Hitler's bunker', Gladwin says – Back to Back found themselves examining their right to use the Hindu deity, and the Holocaust, in their production. Indeed, Ganesh has provoked controversy and carries a warning that the story is neither historically or scripturally accurate.

Yet Gladwin is aware of the dangers of misusing other cultures, and the twin narratives emerged as a response to these challenges. One of the main themes in both stories is 'the manipulation of power – in the one, a totalitarian leader who controls millions of people and the power between a director and an actor, a more subtle manipulation that reflects other relationships, such as between patient and doctor'. This thoughtful, political discussion runs parallel to the devising process that Gladwin describes in terms of an ensemble piecing together art in such a way that the idea of who wrote what becomes impossibly vague.

Ultimately, Back to Back have integrated their scruples into a forceful, questioning piece of theatre. 'After all,' Gladwin concludes, 'if a company like Back to Back can't address the question of the murder of people with disabilities, who can?'

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Lyceum, 473 2000, 9–12 Aug, times and prices vary.

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

A young man creates a play about the Hindu god, Ganesh, overcoming obstacles and travelling through Nazi Germany in order to reclaim the swastika. The cast and director, however, must overcome their own obstacles to defend the play. Performed in English, German and Sanskrit with English supertitles.