I theoretically love going to the theatre but never seem to do so in practice. This is one of just two things I saw in the Dublin Theatre Festival last year. What I picked up from the programme was that this play was about Ganesh (you know, elephant headed Hindu deity) coming to the Third Reich in order to reclaim the ancient symbol of the swastika from the Nazis, which was enough to make it sound like it would be worth seeing. I also registered that it was being performed by Australians.
When the play started, though, I had a slight moment of "where's the fucking Nazis?", as there were neither Nazis nor Hindu deities on stage but two fellows not dressed in 1940s garb. When they started talking I was further confused, as their speech was a bit hard to understand. My first thought was that they were speaking with incomprehensible Australian accents or else that some incompetent had taken over the theatre's sound. But something else soon became apparent: the two actors onstage were both people with intellectual disabilities.
It turned out that the play had three actors with intellectual disabilities and two without. And it was a bi-level thing, partly about Ganesh trying to take the swastika from the Nazis and partly about a theatre company featuring people with intellectual disabilities trying to put together a play about Ganesh trying to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis; the narrative about the actors was probably the dominant one here.
Split narratives often suffer from the problem that one of the narratives is a lot more interesting than the other. In this, though, they both seemed to work well enough together. In the Third Reich narrative Ganesh teams up with an intellectually disabled Jewish lad he rescues from Auschwitz, which of course reminds us that the Nazis were not exactly friends of people with intellectual disabilities.
Each strand of the narrative had at least one great scene. The Third Reich story had a great train carriage episode in which an over-familiar black marketeer starts trying to sell tights to the escaped Jew (who is in disguise, obv), asking an endless series of questions about his girlfriend, her sisters, his sisters, his mother and so on, all potential purchasers of nylons, with the questions forcing the invention of ever more outlandish details about all these non-existent people. It was a scene of the kind of building menace you get in Quentin Tarantino films (think in particular of that opening scene in the farmhouse in Inglorious Basterds).
The outer narrative, meanwhile, has a wonderful extended scene in which the increasingly unhinged actor-director is trying to get one of the ID actors to die properly when shot. It too builds and builds, from a physical comedy of frustration to a deeply uncomfortable episode of rage, to actual theatrical violence.
The ID actors were interesting, in that they were all really good albeit within a limited range. I don't think any of them would be able to convincingly play a character who was not intellectually disabled, but they very much came across as playing roles rather than just being themselves onstage.
There is a scene where the actor-director addresses the audience (or imagines addressing the audience when the play is being staged), accusing them/us of having come along for an evening of "freak porn". I think we were meant to shuffle uncomfortably in our seats at that, but it washed over me. I had no advance awareness that the play featured intellectually disabled actors and this must have been the case for many other people present, as the theatre festival programme did not mention it. Even if you had come along to this expecting something of that type you would probably leave a bit disappointed. The acting is too good and the play too tight to have any kind of freakshow aspect.
So all in all this made for an enjoyable if strange night of theatre.
image source (Sydney Morning Herald)