Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, as part of LIFT Festival, sees the return of Back to Back Theatre, the Australian company that brought Food Court to the Barbican in 2010. Working to provoke and inspire through the use of disabled actors and artists, Back to Back Theatre treads the thin line between artistic intention and artistic empowerment, allowing its theatre to be a platform to fight against the final taboo: disability in all its forms.

In its latest offering, a small group of actors are rehearsing for a show, the story of the god Ganesh, who travels from India to Germany to reclaim the symbol of his religion and people after Hitler has claimed it as the Nazi swastika. Switching between the cast performing the theatre piece and confronting each other over plot, character intentions and personal relationships in the rehearsal room, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a powerful and poignant piece drawing comparisons between the Nazi genocide and modern day perspectives about mentally handicapped people. At once confrontational and retaining a level of comedy (albeit dark in form), this really is theatre that disturbs and disrupts.

The cast, a combination of able-bodied actors and those with physical or mental disabilities, manipulate the stage with varying sheets that span the width of the stage and can be pulled on and off. Painted on them are various designs to represent locations such as a train, a house or a dark forest. These sheets diffuse the light and often leave the cast as nothing more than a blur behind them, as if we are looking at them through frosted glass. As a design (by Rhian Hinkley), it is simple but effective, allowing the space of Stratford Circus to be transformed from the working lights of a rehearsal room, to the darkness and theatrics of a performance space. This switching between the two states of ‘actors being actors’ in a rehearsal room to actors performing the story, which happens after nearly every scene, was frustrating at first. The performance-based work, with sheets pulled across the space and lighting dimmed and elephant mask donned (Ganesh has the head of an elephant), is how we know theatre, a heightened performance state, whereas the scenes in the rehearsal room at first felt more like forced comedy of actors pretending to be actors. It is only as the performance continues that it becomes apparent that the story of Ganesh is only being used as a metaphor for the action that is actually happening in the rehearsal, where tempers rise and the audience are called out for being voyeurs.

This is where Back To Back Theatre sets its mark on its work; it’s not a case of working with actors who have disabilities like English-based company Graeae might do, but to actively provoke and stir argument that becomes altogether uncomfortable and challenging for an audience member. Much like the work of Ontroerened Goed inĀ The Audience, Back To Back Theatre’s Director Bruce Gladwin uses the work to really challenge our preconceived notions of spectators on a work. We are at one point challenged that we’re only here to watch the actors like goldfish in a bowl, to get a sick kick out of their disabilities. Isn’t that why we are here? To see a freak show? As the audience we sit and stare, silently, but we’re all questioning why we’re there, why we’re laughing and what end it will have.

As the rehearsal room antics turn from light jests poking fun at the speech impediments of one actor, the cast seem to smudge their characters into the story set in Nazi-time Berlin, so that it becomes unclear where one character ends and the other begins. We see David Woods, whose determination to get the show perfect causes him to repeatedly shoot actor Scott Price because he can’t die without kicking his legs up in the air. At first comical, this act sinks into the grotesque as Woods shouts and knocks Price around until the other cast attempt to hold him back. We’re aware of course that this is all part of the show, but the sense that this is representing the many abusive moments that have been repeated not only during Hitler’s reign but in modern-day prejudices makes your skin crawl. It’s brutally honest and hard-hitting, and we’re left wishing we would do something ourselves instead of just sitting and watching.

Whilst at times there is a slight pacing issue, Ganesh Verses The Third Reich is expertly set up by Gladwin so that the performance seems to rise to climatic affect. The story of Ganesh as he travels to Berlin to claim back the symbol of his people is wonderfully told, with Brian Tilley as the elephant-headed Ganesh. Simon Laherty, playing everything from a lone Jew to Hitler himself, is a joy to watch, clearly a confident performer, and Mark Deans work brings out a laugh or two with his comic timing.

This is clearly a piece of work that will resonate with me for some time. It challenges ideas and perspective about disability, but also shows how effective theatre can be at discussing these issues and stories. Voyeurs we might be, but Ganesh Verses The Third Reich really is the sort of theatre that we need to see more of on our stages here in the UK. Bold, honest and confrontational, it’s lodged in my memory like the thorn that will always be digging into Germany’s history of Nazis. We just can’t hide from it.

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich played as part of the LIFT Festival at Stratford Circus. For more information on LIFT and other shows see the LIFT Festival website.