Review: Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Stratford Circus ★★★★

How is it possible to overcome the twin artistic taboos of religious representation and the holocaust? Australian company Back to Back Theatre, visiting London as part of LIFT 2012, answer this question with the startling move of throwing another ethically burdened subject into the mix, confronting and challenging our perceptions of disability and unravelling the very notion of representation in the process. To what extent, they seem to be asking, will we accept one thing as standing for another?

At the centre of Back to Back’s theatrical interrogation is the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol poached by the Nazis to become an icon of evil. In the show’s nominal plot, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh is sent on a mission to reclaim this emblem from Hitler, with the fate of the universe resting in his hands. This mission, however, claims but a fraction of the stage time, the real story lying in the process of dramatic creation and the many problematic layers in which this choice of narrative is wrapped. In this framing, the concept of the symbol gains even greater significance.

The company’s brilliance is to be both poignant and harsh, charming at one turn and disturbing at the next

The production’s minefield of political incorrectness is negotiated with a disarming awareness of its own moral sensitivity, an arresting transparency that makes it impossible to attack or patronise. In the breaks between rehearsed scenes, performers argue over the responsibility that actors have towards the parts they are playing and to what extent the blurring of reality and fiction constitutes an ethical violation, particularly in the context of a group of actors labelled by society as “intellectually challenged”.

While much of the backstage dialogue is tender and funny, poking fun at the pretensions of the patronising, sound-bite spouting director who attempts to take control, Back to Back are not afraid to abruptly challenge and even accuse their audience, swiftly shutting down laughter to provoke thought. The company’s brilliance is to be both poignant and harsh, charming at one turn and disturbing at the next.

Beneath it all is theatre, in its limits and its vast possibilities. With the minimal aid of plastic curtains, simple projections and evocative lighting, Back to Back conjure powerful and captivating images seemingly from nowhere. In more than one way, the curtain is – quite literally – pulled back, and the delicate moments of transition between drab reality and beguiling illusion are stripped down to their bare, beautiful mechanics. The effect is one that is not easily shaken off.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 1st July
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