31 August 2013

Review: Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf
La Mama
24 August 2013
La Mama
to 25 August 2013

"Calm yourself, Hitler!"

Mein Kampf isn't Hitler's autobiography, but a farce about Hitler's imagined friendship with Jewish bookseller Shlomo Herzl when Hitler lived in Vienna hoping to be accepted into the Viennese Academy of Fine Art. He wasn't. And it's no wonder, his paintings are all technique and no style; they're dull and reveal a man who seems incapable of seeing – let alone creating – art or seeing real beauty.

It was written by George Tabori in the 1980s to belittle Hitler. Is there anything more humiliating than being laughed at?

Tabori lost nearly all of his family in Auschwitz. Born in Hungary, he was working in Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to London. Here he had novels published, wrote scripts for the "control freak" Hitchcock, was rejected by Hollywood, but discovered theatre in 1947 when he translated Brecht for the American stage. His first play was performed on Broadway, but he was blacklisted by McCarthy, possibly due to his friendship with Arthur Miller.

In 1969, his real breakthrough came with Cannibals, a play set wholly in Auschwitz, but his biggest hit was, and remains, Mein Kampf.

It's a tough one to get right; Hitler and Holocaust jokes aren't easy at the best of times and the danger of laughing too hard at faith or the Jewish characters, who's future we already known, is difficult. But director Beng Oh and his consistently wonderful cast balance the line and gleefully topple into absurd hilarity, rebalance and slip into the pain and horror that it has to acknowledge.

And all takes place in a design by Peter Mumford that embraces the La Mama fireplace so that its ongoing burning creates a tension and fear that it's almost hard to laugh over, and the costumes by Amaya Vecellio support the filth, cold and ridiculous beauty.

Glenn van Oosterom's raging and impotent Hitler is hilarious and Mark Bonanno, Stephania Pountney, Uschi Felix and Samuel Macdonald are just as memorable, but it's Mark Wilson's Schlomo who never leaves the stage. From his drawing of the La Mama raffle at the beginning, Wilson sets the tone and pace from outrageous hilarity to I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can't horror. He's the one who lets us laugh when we want to be horrified and reminds us that the only reason we're laughing is that the truth is still too hard to take in.

Let's hope that Mein Kampf gets another life. Mainly because it's bloody great theatre (with real blood), but also because it tells a story that we all know but often seem to forget.  As our federal election approaches, we're being forced to accept policy that's based on the irrational and unfounded fear and threat of people fleeing persecution, and, as we flick past photos of 100s of dead in Syria, it's important that we remember what happens when we give in to unjustified fear or become complacent because it's not happening to us.  I know we can't get Krabbot and co along to a performance, so it's up to us to recognise the words and actions of people who will do anything to maintain their power.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

Photo by Sarah Walker