DEGENERATE ART, Red Line Productions at the Old Fitz, 18 October-4 November 2018. Photography by John Marmaras: above - the company; below centre - Megan O’Connell; below centre again - Toby Schmitz
Expressionism and the other modern art movements of the early 20th century (including jazz and atonal music) infuriated Adolf Hitler, a man who had aspired to be an artist but was rejected, twice (by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna – how might history have been different if he had been accepted).
Instead, Hitler solved his problem and salved his ego by becoming a dictator and decreeing all art that he didn’t get as Entartete Kunst – degenerate art. It was his and the Nazi Party’s official description of art (probably made by Jews they suspected) and which he feared and envied and certainly couldn’t emulate. The irony is that many of his pleasant teenage efforts – views of old Vienna – were purchased by the city’s Jewish bourgeoisie.
Written and directed by Toby Schmitz, Degenerate Art is an intense raging torrent of words and ideas and characters drawn upon Hitler’s inner circle – Speer (Septimus Caton), Goering (Giles Gartrell-Mills), Goebbels (Schmitz), the failed artist himself (Henry Nixon), Himmler (Guy Edmonds), Reinhard Heydrich (Rupert Reid); and the narrator/conductor of the piece, Megan O’Connell.
As liberal democracy takes a pounding around the world in the face of the undead beliefs of neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and crypto-fascists, Schmitz’s personal interest in Entarte Kunst has morphed into a way into portraying the mindset and ambitions of these enemies of humanity.
Dressed in chic black on a black set trimmed with scarlet amid the sharpest, smartest lighting set-up (set and costume design: Maya Keys, lighting design: Alexander Berlage), the exploration of this inner world of hatred, fear, turmoil and thwarted aspiration is manifest in the free jazz-style vocal riffs and multi-counterpoints shared between the characters.
It’s a witty and most often wonderful dig in the ribs for the Fuhrer who would have loathed these 100 minutes with rabid passion, not just for the delivery but because its symphonic construction takes us through the rise and rise, the darkest achievements and, finally, the flaming end of Nazi hegemony. Except, of course, as Schmitz and his cast remind us, the war that was won turned out to be a battle; the war continues.
And in Australia, the war creeps ever closer as laws are sneaked through parliament taking away civil and human rights while we the people are either asleep at the wheel, or don’t realise the wheel could be ours to take. Degenerate Art seeks to wake us out of this national torpor – assisted by Ben Pierpoint’s sound design and the dazzling AV design by Aron Murray.
The crucial element of the play and its telling is that these men are not monsters, caricatures or bad jokes; rather they are cunningly ambitious, prideful ideologues for whom being part of a generation of utter humiliation was more than enough. Their ordinariness rather than their awfulness is what is most notable and therefore terrifying. Although I attended a preview (and am writing this from Ubud!) the cast worked as tightly and flawlessly as Jan Zehfeld’s Panzerballett – a German band most often described as jazz-metal – and the result, in Degenerate Art, feels like an improvised head-banging poetry slam on schnapps. If you see what I mean...
Nothing is played for laughs nor lazy derision: the buffoonery and over-blown pomp of most depictions of these men are eschewed. Under-estimating in the hope of deflating the bogeymen didn’t work then, and definitely won’t work now. The unease to be felt in this company is through the semblance pf ordinariness that we have come to blithely hope for. As performed by this terrific ensemble, Degenerate Art is a many-splendored rip through history and right into the present day.
Whatever he’s doing, Toby Schmitz is never less than wildly ambitious. Encouragement and appreciation are the only responses. Not to be missed – Recommended.