Ganesh Vs The Third Reich

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.

meta
A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.
-Urban Dictionary

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.

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The Seagull and Other Birds

In this, the darker, edgier sequel to last week’s blog, Andy McLoughlin reviews PanPan theatre’s adaptation of the Chekov classic, “The Seagull”, titled “The Seagull and Other Birds”, seen with the Young Critics programme as part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival

Anton Chekov was a highly popular Russian comedy writer in the nineteenth century. People would come to his shows from miles around to be made laugh by his shows. Unfortunately, tastes have changed and his plays, if performed as originally intended, probably wouldn’t elicit the same reactions today.  Some people would argue that performing these shows directly translated, exactly as performed at the time isn’t the best way to honour his memory, and instead what is important is to reflect the spirit and intentions of his original work, comedy and all.  To these people I say “Balderdash!” The only correct way to recreate a text is with pedantic dedication to the original, even if that means making a play completely removed from the humour that was important in the original. For example, take a look at this sentence from PanPan’s website:

“Within this conceptual aim, The Seagull operates as a dramaturgical spine that allows for an investigation of form and content, in line with Chekhov’s own experimentations with the dramatic conventions of the time.”

Now if you ask me, that quote is of exactly the caliber of mind-numbing boredom we’ve come to expect from Chekov.  Imagine my shock when I walked into the theatre and witnessed the most stimulating, artistically creative, pants-moisteningly funny show I had seen all year.  From start to end, we were presented with a production which was simultaneously energetic, self-reflexive, boundary breaking, culturally relevant and interactive, without for a second being pretentious or coy.  A disgrace to Chekov’s good name if ever there was such a thing.

The cast were already performing their pre show as we walked into the theatre on what looked more like a rehearsal space than a stage. All the crew, including the director were in the performance area as the play was happening. There were no wings so rather than walking offstage when they weren’t needed for a scene, the tutu wearing actors would stand stock still until we forgot about them which worked surprisingly well.  We were all handed out the lyrics to I Don’t Like Mondays and the framed awards they had won were passed around the audience as we sang along.

And then the show started.

The play adhered to the basic structure of the story of The Seagull; a tale of jealousy, love polygons, and – it being one of Chekov’s comedies– tragic suicide. This main narrative was interspersed with other shorts, many written by the cast, most of which referenced pop culture in some way (in one scene in particular to the point of plagiarism), many of which carefully straddled the fine line between surreally terrifying and surreally hilarious. In the post show discussion, hosted by director Gavin Quinn and Assistant Director Zoe Ni Riordáin, it was revealed to us that some of these secondary plots had been written as recently as two weeks ago and that as performers, they liked to keep their play fresh by changing its content as much and as often as possible.

In this same after-show discussion there was a discussion of when they had performed the show in China and had to deal with the censorship laws that come with producing art in that country, especially with a show so heavily based around popular culture. One would have hoped that by producing a show in a country with such a healthy culture of self-censorship, they would have learned not to be too experimental with existing texts; but alas, this extravaganza production bears no resemblance to the original text whatsoever. Chekov’s original work was a tragic comedy in which an avant garde performer struggles to find acceptance in the shadow of a much greater, more famous artist. PanPan has ruined this play by making a show people will laugh at where performers reject the theatre style that existed when the literary giant that was Chekov was making plays. Like I said, completely different.

Frequency 783 and Emperor’s Clothes

This week we have Andy McLoughlin fresh from NAYD’s Young Critics course with the first installment of his three part series of reviews and thoughts on theatre. First up, Frequency 783 by Brokentalkers!

Our second weekend of the Young Critics took a turn for the weird. Shortly after arriving in Dublin we scurried off through the rain to our first production in The Project Arts Centre. The show: Frequency 783, devised by Brokentalkers and directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. The plot is… abstract. The play opens with a teenage boy walking onto the set and unleashing a noose from the ceiling, more or less setting the tone for the rest of the play. Shortly after, the play’s other character, an ageing woman, walks on and what follows is a disjointed series of vignettes displaying interpretive dance, operatic hymns and impressive visual effects, all for the purpose of conveying some sort of loose message about fear of the future.

If this all seems a little disjointed that’s because it is, but in this production, the look of the show was every bit as significant as its ambiguous content. The set appears to be a recording studio, cutesy synth pop instruments and all, but its uniform, symmetrical shape and pale grey walls call to mind something as otherworldly as The Star Trek holodeck or, given the show’s fascination with death, possibly some sort of purgatory. Beyond this it conveys absolutely nothing about the actual story, but instead provides a blank canvas for the beautiful projections, colourful costumes, and yes, even some glitter.

There are a few assumptions that you might be inclined to make about this show and to be honest, I’d probably agree with you. This is probably some avant garde nonsense that people pretend to like because they’re too worried about sounding dumb to just admit they didn’t get it. Even if you don’t consume theatre, you’re probably familiar with this idea. Whether it’s a hipster trying to sell you on the debut album of a synth jazz didgeridoo quartet, or an art critic staring for hours at a canvas featuring nothing but a straight black line. These are the people who try to convince you that only a fool couldn’t see the emperor’s clothes. Too often symbolism is used not for dramatic effect, but to give a sense of depth to a production without putting in the legwork required to give it a real sense of meaning.

Now, I’ve always been a great defender of symbolism. At the best of times it’s a powerful narrative tool where enchanted objects make concrete the abstract feelings and emotions that drive us as human beings. But a symbol still has to be a complement to an existing narrative, and not just a substitute for one. The reason you don’t need an arts degree to understand the symbolism of The Emperor’s New Clothes is because there is already more to it than just the symbolism. It’s got archetypal characters, and a plot, and it reinforces our strange human desire to believe that if something confuses us, we shouldn’t take it seriously.

So my negative feelings for Frequency 783 didn’t come when I walked out of The Project Arts Centre with that delicious dazed look on my face and I turned to one of my fellow audience members and asked them, “what was the deal with that dude wearing a mask and running into the wall while the 65 year old played synths?” and they said, “Jaysus Ted, I dunno. Symbolism maybe?” Because, as with any aspect of a play, if it makes you feel something and it’s compelling enough to make you question it, then authorial intent just doesn’t matter.

But at the end of the day, the symbols alone can’t make a piece worth watching. As an audience member I understand that when the boy in Frequency 783 puts twenty elastic bands on his face and moans it’s supposed to be an expression of his teenage angst, but otherwise it meant nothing to me. If Brokentalkers only wanted me to walk out of that theatre thinking “Wow, I really connected with that show in a way that forced me to think about these issues,” then I’d have to give a bad review. But, being avant garde as it is, this wasn’t just a piece of narrative drama, it was also a visually striking work of art, and I have to review it as such. When all is said and done, the emperor might be naked, but he still looks good with his clothes off.

Theatre of Shadows: A Review by Jack Rogers

Skulduggery Pleasant’s: Theatre of Shadows was a live action, immersive role playing game, but essentially it was a piece of promenade theatre. To anybody who might not know Skulduggery pleasant is a book series about a witty skeleton detective/sorcerer that solves magical maladies.

This event was, if anything, unique. I had never heard of anything of the sort before. My expectation wasn’t huge as I was not completely sure as to what I would be doing. But I remained positive. I got to Smock Alley Theatre and was divided into the group I would be travelling around with. Once all participants were there, we began.

The plot of the event was, a criminal from the series had kidnapped a girl and the protagonists from the book had disappeared. We had to solve the mystery. Being honest, I found many flaws with this event. Most characters were sure to have a script with a little room to adlib, but the actor giving us the premise, stumbled through a few times which made me question the professionalism of the actors.

As part of the event we had to travel all around Dublin, doing things that felt only vaguely relevant to the plot. We were given menial tasks and praised for it for no reason. The distance that we had to walk was from Temple Bar to Trinity College. There were few scenes in between a large walking space. This took away from whatever immersive element there was meant to be. I think the creator relied on the sociability of the audience and thought perhaps we would all start talking and make friends, however this did not happen.

With us, we had welfare leaders/actors that had to keep up the role playing element as we walked around, but many times I found that the audience had to spur them on, or else they would say nothing. Most of the audience were children so many didn’t engage; this then led to the leaders chatting about their social activities at the back of the group.

There were, however a few moments in which the leaders improvised well, though this is all that can be said for them. We were sent back to Smock Alley theatre for the “climax” of the event where the audience had to fight demons well known in the books. And this is where I noticed that the event seemed very low budget despite the price of tickets and the amount of people there. Things didn’t add up. And finally the ending was predictable and incredibly anti climactic unlike the work one would come to expect from writer: Derek Landy.

Overall I would say that the event was discouraging. It felt as though the audience was taken for granted. That we would adore any old drivel placed in front of us just because we were fans of the things this man writes. And drivel is how I would describe it. The story was very dry and uninteresting. My expectation wasn’t high and I was still disappointed. I think Derek Landy dropped the ball.

Our Reckoners on Reckoners: A Review By Amy Smith and Andy McLoughlin

reckoners two

Two weeks ago a cohort of us trekked down to Dublin to catch a glimpse of some of the highlights of The Dublin Fringe Festival. This week, we have Andy McLoughlin and Amy Smith on the drama Reckoners by Ross Dungan.

From the moment the eerie soundtrack began to play until the lights fade down over the ruins of the play’s setting, this production is all about atmosphere. Set in “The ‘Stra”, a fictional town which seems to exist almost outside of time and space, evoking in equal measure the urban decay of modern North Dublin and the isolation and tension of an old west ghost town.

The plot follows two men, one a grizzled inmate, newly free after serving time for a gangland stabbing; the other an out of place son of the crime family transgressed by said inmate, out to make his bones. We follow these two men over the course of one fateful day, their intertwining stories unravelling in monologues delivered by their respective actors. Script and performer complement each other wonderfully here. John Cronin’s lulling pace captures perfectly the stillness of The Stra whereas Manus Halligan’s performance as the insecure black sheep is infused with a frantic rhythm that offers much needed energy to the slow burning story.

Beautifully entrancing as the play is (I very seriously considered staying in Dublin to catch the second performance), it’s not perfect. The format of the play, ie alternating monologues of varying length, delivered by the two leads, can get tiring, especially in the play’s less intense moments. With such a detailed set, beautifully designed by Zia Holly, it seems a shame that the actors spend almost the entire play standing still and facing the audience.

All this being said, both the narrative and the aesthetic had a sense of purpose to them that was incredibly effective. Too often in theatre, the quality of performance, script, and production are too uncoordinated to be judged alongside each other, but Reckoners had a vision. A sinister dystopian vision of inevitable demise, maybe, but a vision nonetheless. –Andy McLoughlin

The most immediately impressive part of this show, from the moment we entered the Lir, was the set. The realistic staging set the tone for the whole play, creating the tense, rough atmosphere portrayed in the script. The work that clearly went into creating the set and lighting is mesmerising and I would happily spend an hour staring at the set alone.

The acting was also admirable, and the portrayal of the characters was captivating. The contrast between innocence and guilt was fascinating to watch onstage. This consistency in all aspects of the production, made not only for a captivating performance, but a simply enjoyable one . –Amy Smith