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Degenerate Art

Photo by John Marmaras

Red Line Productions and Old Fitz present, DEGENERATE ART, by Toby Schmitz, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo. 18th October – 4th November.

DEGENERATE ART, is a new Australian play, by Toby Schmitz.

DEGENERATE ART, is a 100 minute play without interval. An interlocutor, played by Megan O’Connell, introduces us to a group of men, dressed in variations of contemporary schmick black, who have been brooding about the stage as we entered, occupying a Set Design, by Maya Keys, of a wall smear of, mostly, green and black paints (one part of it hung like a picture, free air, in a gallery) with two contemporary small screens on the side walls, that during the proceedings will display AV images of art and location that will elucidate some of what is going-on (AV Design, by Aron Murray), the whole lit moodily and dramatically by Alexander Berlage. There is, as well, a subtle Soundscape from the indefatigable (and super-sensitive, intuitive) Ben Pierpoint.

These men turn out to be Adolf Hitler (Henry Nixon),and most of his principal and influential henchmen: Heinrich Himmler (Guy Edmonds), Joseph Goebbels (Toby Schmitz), Herman Goering (Giles Gartrell-Mills), Reinhard Heydrich (Rupert Reid) and Albert Speer (Septimus Caton), and what we experience is the journey of the rise of Nazism in the Fascist atmosphere of Germany from approximately, 1933- 1945.

A year, or so, ago, I read BLITZED, by Norman Ohler (2015), who wrote of the rise and dominance of the Nazi regime by its leaders and manipulation of its population, through the lens of Drugs and the habit of usage. Giving another entry point to recalibrate the reason for such a time in our species’ dark history. Fascinating. (but then, of course THE ROMANOVS, 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016), gave similar allusions to the last days of the Romanovs, in their seats of power!)

Mr Schmitz’s play is told through the lens of the importance of Art (plastic, film, music) to the regime – stemming, perhaps, from the personal fact that Adolf Hitler was twice rejected as a student to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts ( he couldn’t draw heads, we are told.). It is the story of the so-called Degenerate Art movement, the looting and hoarding of great art objects, and features the making of a film called TITANIC, and the dreams of Hitler/Speer in creating a great architectural wonder city. Fascinating, too.

This is Mr Schmitz’s second play using the background of the Nazi regime. CAPTURE THE FLAG, being the other. Why? Says Mr Schmitz in an essay DEGENERATE ART: DARING TO LOOK (available on the Audrey Journal site):

Putting minorities in detention camps is the norm again. As is the careless employment of incendiary language straight out of the Nazi Handbook. Racism has returned to the lives of many, from Moscow to Calais, Washington to Canberra, from London to Melbourne. Nazism didn’t end in tragedy, it created tragedy. And when Politics fails to curtail it, as it has and will again, the Art must be employed to expose it. Urgently.

DEGENERATE ART, brings these criminal men to the stage whom we already know, vaguely, from our history reading (and, perhaps, SBS Television – sometimes known the ‘Hitler Channel’). Through Mr Schmitz’s invented character: the Interlocutor, they are shown to be not only ruthless in gaining and maintaining power but also obsessed, maybe, fragile individuals distracted, preoccupied by Art. Again, Mr Schmitz:

For decades after the War serious historians refrained from trying to understand who Hitler was in any depth. He was an anomaly, a nobody in the right place, perhaps insane, and Academia prioritised turning to How it happened. … Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, forged the bracing revelation, reeking of truth, that monsters are very rare. Its the normal people we must watch out for. … Not only is it important to see these people as humans, but it is our long-overdue obligation. It’s easier to write them off as ‘not us’….

Hitler can be seen as a man without real character, rather a black hole at the centre of Nazism – an angry jealous artist – rejected and vengeful.

To this end it was through reading Gitney Sereney’s 1995 tome ALBERT SPEER – HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH, and the literary fiction of Jonathan Littell’s THE KINDLY ONES (LES BIENVEILLANTES, translated into English in 2009) of the auto-biographhy of ‘Maximilien Aue’, an officer in the Nazi army, that I began to realise the human scale and horror of ordinary men’s capabilities in the pursuit of passionately believed ‘ideals’.

Does this happen with Mr Schmitz’s play and production and performance at the Old Fitz?

The play is written in sculpted English in mainly verse form and is, possibly, beautiful. Certainly, the vocabulary and the control of the word order of that vocabulary is dazzling. The content is stuffed-full of references, political and artistic, from, it appears, an highly educated mind. So rich is that mind and its literary pursuit as a playwright that it may exclude many of the listeners from an easy penetration to comprehensibility. This play has the intellectual sophistication of Tom Stoppard at his brilliant best but lacks the character or plot development, that Mr Stoppard has, mostly, employed to speak of his pre-occupations to make it an entertainment as well as an enlightenment in the theatre. (Does Mr Schmitz intend an animated lecture formula?)

This textual combat, further, was not aided by the super energy of a co-hort of wonderfully erudite actors with vocal skills of an awe inspiring standard that produced (from 6 male actors) an alpha-male torrent of relentlessly hurled sound that buffeted us in our seats with its forcefulness. I found myself wrestling with the sound waves and grasping and gasping for sense, so as not to succumb to being drowned by it all – clutching for ‘straws’ of comprehensibility – one became bedazzled, discombobulated, exhausted. At the interval-less end of the production I felt that I had been run over by a large semi-trailer truck. “Clang”, “clang”, the searing warning siren of the horn, and all those huge wheels – “Whoosh!” hurtling towards me, squashing me. My guest was similarly tyre-dazed. We held our hands to get out, we were more than a little unbalanced.

DEGENERATE ART, is a remarkable offer in the ‘landscape’ of our bland Australian theatre world.

It is for the brave. It is for the interested and curious of the Nazi raison d’être.

It is not for the casual theatre goer. It is not for the theatre goer looking for a light distraction.

Do not drink in the bar before you go in, and, depend, you will need the bar after you come out.

I long to read it.

I long to see these remarkable actors invested with so much committed passion in their next work of art.

DEGENERATE ART, is, possibly, an amazing text, and we are excited by the quality of the discipline of these artists with their honed skills (rare to have such a collection of actors together on the one stage, at the same time.)

On reflection, maybe, just maybe, The Old Fitz Theatre is just too small a space to take the scale of the performance art that this play demands. Then, again, DEGENERATE ART is not a ‘commercial work’ that any of our subsidised companies, in Sydney, would (could) possibly consider to exhibit. So, thank goodness for Red Line and the Old Fitz, for their artistic curation, otherwise we’d never have got the choice to witness the latest Toby Schmitz labour of love: Writer, Director and, belatedly, actor. It is dense and definitely overwhelmingly intense.