Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

Back to Back are a company known for their confronting approach to performance, and their latest offering, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, is no exception. The play generated much controversy before its premiere, with the Council of Indian Australians calling to have it removed from the Melbourne Festival programme. Yet the very concerns that the Council have raised are central to Back to Back’s project, which examines difficult questions surrounding cultural appropriation, the politics of representation and who has the right to tell which stories.

Set in 1943 in a concentration camp near the German/Polish border, the play explores the misappropriation of the swastika, an ancient Sanskrit symbol, by the Nazis. Returning to earth, Hindu god Ganesh seeks to retrieve the religious symbol and appease the wrath of his father Shiva, who is so enraged he wants to obliterate the earth and start anew. Here Ganesh meets Levi, a “mongoloid” who has been spared by Dr Mengele due to Mengele’s perverse fascination with “the abnormal”.
With the help of chronicler Vishnu, together Levi and Ganesh travel across Germany to confront Hitler and retrieve the swastika before it is too late. But interspersed with their peregrination are backstage scenes about the creation of the play itself, blurring the lines between reality and theatrical illusion, and highlighting the ways in which similar issues of representation apply to what Back to Back do.
The cast of Back to Back are people perceived to have intellectual disabilities and in the past, the company’s directors have been accused of similar exploitations – that the actors themselves has been appropriated as symbols, unwittingly roped into their shows without an understanding of the themes that are being explored.
Despite the patronization inherent in such accusations, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich tackles such questions head on in a way that is at once humourous, self-reflexive and at times highly uncomfortable. Cast member Scott accuses director David of manipulation and insensitivity – that “not all the actors understand the gravity of the roles they’re playing”. But perhaps most challenging is when David turns these questions on the ‘imaginary’ audience, accusing us of “[coming] here to see an aquarium or a zoo. You wanted to see a freakshow”.
Such questions surrounding representation are important for all theatre and for art more broadly. Yet as Ganesh Versus the Third Reich so successfully demonstrates, there are no easy answers. Back to Back explore these issues with delicacy and incisiveness, creating a show that is as penetrative as it is poignant, and as disquieting as it is euphoric. This is set to be one of the highlights of the 2011 Melbourne Festival, and one of the most important pieces of theatre you’re likely to see this year.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich will be performed at the Malthouse Theatre until October 9 as part of the Melbourne Festival. Tickets are $49 full price, $43 for seniors, $39 concession and $26 for students. For bookings or further information, visit malthouse.com.au.