The benign elephant-headed deity Ganesh is sent by the Hindu gods from India to Nazi Germany in 1943 to reclaim that ancient mystic symbol the swastika, which Hitler has brought into disrepute.
With his beautiful pachyderm head and rotund belly, Ganesh attracts the admiration of a Third Reich scientist who demands to know what experiment could have produced him, and warns Ganesh not to expect the morality that usually underlies scientific experimentation. His speciality is torture, killing and bringing back to life to start again. His name is Mengele.
So begins Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, one of the Edinburgh International Festival’s official opening theatre productions – but the Nazi story is only one strand, soon woven into this play within a play from Back to Back.
The Australian theatre company, which is made up of players with disabilities and recently had a residency in the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, delights in the unpredictable and the confrontational. Underlying Ganesh – indeed much of its self-devised work is the question of how we, as a “normal” audience, see them. Who are the outsiders? Outside what? At one point the play jolts into a direct address to us, the spectators, challenging various levels of involvement, whether sympathetic, embarrassed, patronising – or simply accepting, by this stage easy enough, so all the more disconcerting when Brian the director identifies the audience as the potential enemy.
The play becomes a discussion among the actors sparked by Mark, the most silent, childlike and apparently least communicative, and by his ability to tell reality from fantasy. Like most of the company’s work, the play was achieved by improvisation, and there are moments of authentic abrasiveness.
Alongside these challenged actors, guest artist David Woods plays Brian, a non-disabled worker, initially with a wonderfully luvvy-ish line in gush. The shock when he finally snaps at mounting incomprehension and dissent is actually frightening: his charge across the stage to attack a mutinous member of the cast (Scott Price, goaded almost to tears by the director’s bullying) is terrifying. Woods has a wonderful way with mounting exasperation, muttered asides and scathing throwaways. There must be a place for him among stand-ups on the Edinburgh Fringe.
The company, founded in 1987 and frequently taking a year to perfect a production, plays like the ensemble it is, conducting spare scene-changes from bare rehearsal room to nocturnal train journey while increasingly including us in its squabbles and friendship – which in this emotional roller-coaster has moments as funny as Alan Ayckbourn or Mike Leigh.