Back to Back Theatre reveals the elephant in the room

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Festival/Tokyo 13, this year’s edition of the annual stage-arts festival, started Nov. 9. A unique feature of the festival’s program is its many presentations that encourage audience participation, be it leading them around the streets following a certain theme, or guiding them via social networking services to assemble in public places to suddenly burst into flash mob-style synchronized dancing.

Sitting in a seat to passively view a talented performance and empathizing with the people on stage is just one kind of theatrical experience. When actors and audiences share the same space, what else can happen? What else is possible? The goal of the festival is to take multiple approaches to stimulate a dialogue and expand the possibilities of the performing arts.

Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, in its first visit to Japan, brings “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” to the festival. On the one hand, this is a dramatic tale told in a conventional play format, but on the other, it poses fundamental questions such as, “What is authority?” “What is a play?” And “What is an audience?” It’s a work that realizes an ideal theatrical form, with both acuteness and breadth.

In the play, the elephant-headed god Ganesh, sets out on a journey to take back the Hindu symbol of well-being, the swastika, from Nazi Germany. This unique story is mixed on stage with scenes of the theater company rehearsing the play. Light, darkness and opaque plastic curtains are used effectively to create a beautiful shadow-play-like fantasy, and the doubts that spout from the actors playing each role, combined with their difficulties with the director wielding power over them, reveal the many problems that lie behind the scenes.

Can the play be done without portraying lies? Without yielding to hierarchy? Without exposing things that people don’t want to reveal? The Back to Back Theatre members, who are all living with disabilities, and director Bruce Gladwin faced fundamental and essential questions, which they personally dealt with in the process of creating this work — then they put them on stage. By doing this, members of the audience, though sitting silently, watching the stage, begin to see themselves as perpetrators, clearly actively causing harm to the actors by their presence, gazing at the stage with some kind of prejudice.

The stagework is executed in a way that feels shocking in its desperation. The audience won’t be allowed to remain mere bystanders. It’s a more stimulating theater experience than any participation-based performance you’ll ever find.

This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka. “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” runs at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre Playhouse from Dec. 6 to Dec. 8. Tickets are ¥4,500. For more information, call 03-5961-5202, or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp.