The 2016 election of Donald Trump was a rude global awakening that the West had quickly forgotten what Fascism looks and sounds like. In the two years since, still, little has been done to address the insidious ways dangerous ideas and attitudes infect policy and perspective on all shores, including our own. Rich white men (and women) continue to cut funding to necessary sectors like health and public schools, detention centres are active and normal, and, yes, Australia is still racist. That’s why we’re seeing Nazis on stage with more frequency and more urgency; as reminders.
Degenerate Art, a new experimental theatre piece by Toby Schmitz, focuses largely on the less recognised participants in the Nazi regime of early 20th century Germany: the art dealers, architects, artists, and greedy collectors. These men again and again turned a blind eye to atrocities because of the opportunities they opened for them to wield power over beauty. Culminating in the centring of Linz as the capital of culture and art in Germany and Europe, but including plenty of perks for themselves, these men actively used the Nazi regime to rewrite the art world and take control of it.
Megan O’Connell acts as the contemporary narrator, leading the audience through these scenes across the war and revealing the less publicised details of their actions. It’s clear that O’Connell is meant to add context and clarity to the disjointed and non-naturalistic historical recreations of conversations and decisions, but sometimes the only thing clear about her explanation was the chronology. By the final scenes, the audience is supposed to have followed her on the emotional journey from these men as artists to them as Nazis and war criminals, reflecting on their cruelty, negligence, and greed with anger and horror but the language of the script sets the listener at such a distance that her emotion seems a bit over-invested.
The text is fast-paced and witty in its word play. It’s the kind of thing that can be spoken at a million miles an hour and make it seem like the speaker has covered everything. But it requires a particular commitment to intonation and gesture as sign posts throughout the ranting for an audience to make any sense of the slew of words. Often it felt like the actors were washing the audience with names, dates, ideas, and jokes all in the same breath and all equally unintelligible. Particularly when being thrown into the opening with a speech from O’Connell that would make you feel like you’d accidentally stumbled into an art history exam. It’s clever writing, intelligent writing, but also awfully opaque to listen to.
Once you’ve got your footing, the arc of Degenerate Art becomes much clearer. We’re to watch these men go from typical powerful white men in suits, to the same men but with millions of people’s blood on their hands. It’s a message about the evil lurking within, or the banality of evil, whatever it is that makes normal people do horrible things. But in this instance, the starting point is already distasteful; to see a group of six men in their cockiest become more arrogant and powerful does not speak to a universal succumbing to Fascism. Perhaps it more obviously displays whose ears are piqued by these messages and who has the biggest hands to grab the most spoils of suffering.
The production quality was excellent. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design, as always, was innovative and imaginative in shaping the space around the actors and enhancing the atmosphere of each scene. Maya Keys’s set design was like a cross between a modern art gallery and a dungeon, with large canvases of blue-grey and black suspended from the ceiling. With the amount of movement between figurative time and space in this production, a simple table and stacks of blank paper covered every eventuality. For added irony, Aron Murray’s AV design of mostly famous classical paintings or recordings of Nazi art unveilings was a tangible backdrop, particularly when actors described a painting while the audience could actually see it. It’s ironic because it makes it seem like the Nazis’ craze to steal and confiscate European art was about the art, about its beauty and the need to preserve it. As though showing the audience the piece will help explain why they went to the lengths that they did, when, in reality, it was always about power and possession.
These are some of Australia’s best actors. Schmitz invites you into his wild lateral thinking and harebrained ideas while filling the space with absolute ease, even as Joseph Goebbels. Henry Nixon plays Adolf Hitler as both enraged and deranged throughout the production both with a terrifying control. Hermann Giesler (Septimus Caton), the architect commissioned to design the rebuilding of Linz and the Führermuseum, almost convinces as a man caught in the wrong profession, driven by a fierce pride to create something bigger and better. All of them know how to be intimidating but perhaps only a few of them know how to lean into the audience and describe a viewer’s death by torture.
Degenerate Art is a response from the art world to this reawakening of Fascism in the West and it can’t be condemned for that. But the script seems so caught up in putting Nazis on stage but — different, or in pushing the boundaries of experimental history, that the language and action get bogged down. It seems like just the type of script that would sing from the written page, but performed, it requires too much work of decoding and interpreting to really hit the mark.
Degenerate Art is running at the Old Fitz Theatre from October 17th – November 4th