Andy McLoughlin’s epic trilogy of reviews concludes with Ganesh Vs. The Third Reich, by Back to Back Theatre, seen with the Young Critics programme as part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.
A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.
Andy Vs. Ganesh Vs. The Third Reich
In a weekend filled with weird plays, it seemed fitting to end it with a play that was really two normal plays. The first storyline of Ganesh Vs. The Third Reich tells the story of the Hindu god of overcoming obstacles (oh how symbolic!) trekking through Eastern Europe on a quest to reclaim the symbol of the Swastika from Nazi Germany. This story is interspersed with scenes showing a sort of “Making of the Show” in which we’re given a fictionalised account of the production’s story from start to grizzly end. As the play progresses, the secondary storyline spins out of control and more or less cannibalises the main plot. This was downplayed in the press for the show to great effect. It’s a real treat to walk into a show expecting Schindler’s List and then getting Being John Malkovich.
But Charlie Kauffman this show is not. Last week I reviewed The Seagull and Other Birds, another show which was very meta in its content. If that was an example of meta theatre hitting the bullseye, this was an example of it missing the dartboard. Back To Back theatre consists almost entirely of people who are perceived by society as having intellectual disabilities, and a large part of their mission statement is to address how these perceptions factor into their lives. Naturally this means that nothing they devise can be completely decoupled from the actors performing the roles. But there’s always a balance to be struck. And trying to spin the plates of satire, meta theatre and absurdist comedy just seemed to be a little too ambitious for them.
Tickets for this show cost nearly thirty euro and I have no trouble seeing why. Silhouettes, shadows, projections and other tricks of the light were all used to great effect to give the main story the sense of scale it deserved. Of the two stories, that of the Hindu God Ganesh on his mission across Nazi occupied Europe was always going to be the more stimulating of the two (I mean seriously, it has Nazis AND elephants. What more could you want?), and the staging reflects that. But in every other scene, when the stage is stripped of its spectacular design and transformed back into a rehearsal space, there’s a real jarring feeling that goes along with it. This was no doubt an artistic decision, but for me it served more as a reminder of the show I could have been watching if Back to Back had just exercised a little self restraint.
To be clear, making a play that’s ambitious to the point of absurdity isn’t a problem per say; I’m as big a fan of Adventure Time as the next guy. But when you leave the realm of the spectacular and enter the realm of the real, you need to be able to make the tonal shifts that go along with that. And for the most part this play just doesn’t. There’s one scene in particular, where the show’s director turns to the audience and almost literally says, “If there were an audience here, I’d say they were a bunch of perverts who just came to see a freakshow. Wouldn’t that be clever?” Granted, the director isn’t supposed to be the most likeable of characters, but it’s exactly these kind of tongue-in-cheek “D’ya see what I did there?” moments that waste the show’s potential for real commentary.
The one word this review keeps on coming back to is “ambitious”. Funnily enough though, it’s in the quiet parts that the play seems to be biting off more than it can chew. There’s a certain safety in making spectacular theatre. If you can get people on board with a funfair, people will pretty much lean back and let you do anything. (Anything). But the job of theatre is to make people lean forward. To make the audience want to sit there and listen and become a different person for doing so. This is a play that succeeds in making us lean forward, but fails to make proper use of our undivided attention.
This emphasis on spectacle, or what some might call style over substance, has been the main recurring theme of this weekend for me. Whether it was Frequency 783, an unapologetic art piece that was perfectly happy to leave the audience mystified; The Seagull and Other Birds, a love letter to the spectacle of avant garde theatre in all its ridiculous glory; or this, an historical epic that doesn’t quite know when to stop being so epic. There’s something optimistic to be taken from all this of course. The ways in which we tell stories are becoming more beautiful and more numerous as time goes on. But we can’t forget that the true test of a story isn’t how it makes you feel when you’re in it, but how it makes you feel when all is said and done.