Sunday 10 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Ganesh and the Third Reich, or, Trying to Survive with Fewer Words

Regular readers will know that I put a high value on the text. Words matter a great deal to me. I think they continue to be quite crucial to successful theatre and that far too many modern theatre pieces don't recognise the script as a sufficiently key element. Given this belief (others might call it prejudice) this show presented me with particular problems. The programme note puts it as follows: “With our actors it is difficult to work with a text written beforehand.” This is because all but one of the performers in this show are in some way disabled. The script apparently evolves through improvisatory rehearsal and therefore can't be judged in the same way I might judge other such devised theatrical pieces. There are plenty of strong things about this script but I also can't deny I had problems with the textual result which we'll come back to later.

First the unquestionable positives. The ensemble – Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and David Woods give committed and often striking performances. My memory is not good enough to single out exactly who plays which part but Ganesh, the Jewish concentration camp prisoner who befriends him, and the all too controlling director stand out. The disabilities of the other two performers, from the point of view of what I'm used to watching, means (and I should emphasise this is a comment against myself) that I found it harder work to engage with them, but they are compelling presences even when in the Upper Circle I was straining to make out the text. The visuals of the play within a play sequences are stunning – the use of plastic curtains, projections, basic tables and chairs and lighting to conjure environments from train carriages to forests to a ruined Berlin are all brilliantly done – particular credit here is clearly due to the lighting designer Andrew Livingston. Finally the narrative of the play within a play (that is the Ganesh retrieving the swastika bit) works well – perhaps too well in relation to the rehearsal process as I was more engaged by those characters and began to get frustrated by the frequent cutaways.

And this brings us to my ultimate problem with the piece. The point the company are seeking to make by showing us parts of the rehearsal process is clearly set out both in the performance itself and in the programme notes. That's to say addressing previous accusations that, as the notes put it, they exploit these actors rather than empower them. And the rehearsal scenes do make that point well. The increasingly overbearing full of his own brilliance director is nicely done and I thoroughly sympathised with the rest of the cast when full scale rebellion finally breaks out. There are also some cleverly playful moments about the challenges that flow from working with disabled performers – the problem of trying to make one actor fall in a particular way after being shot stands out here. But, as with so many devised pieces, I didn't feel the length of the rehearsal scenes was justified. The direct engagement with an invisible audience is not a new idea and I didn't find it shocking – I'm afraid it was more a case of wearily thinking, here we go again. I think I also struggled, and this comes back to the text issue, with having one very articulate figure who cannot be challenged with words with equal articulacy by anyone else on stage. I realise that's to some extent the point, but it did make me begin to lose patience.

Overall, there's plenty here that is worth seeing. The performers are committed and impressive, the visuals are a treat. The ideas are worth exploring and there are, as I hope I've indicated, challenging aspects to something like this which it is worth exposing oneself to. But all that said, and I don't deny this may say as much about me as about the show, I did lose interest in places and I came away feeling that at an hour and forty minutes it's also a show that needed tighter editing.

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