Degenerate Art review: Fascism scrutinised through the prism of art

Degenerate Art review: Fascism scrutinised through the prism of art

Old Fitz Theatre, October 21, until November 4


Two highly intelligent American musicians – Joan Baez​ and Marc Ribot – have told me in interviews this year that Trump's US is already a fascist state. This exaggerates symptoms of a potential metamorphosis​ towards fascism, most obviously via racism, scapegoating​ minorities, discrediting​ the media, law-enforcement and the judiciary, and presenting narratives contrary to the facts.

Toby Schmitz in Degenerate Art.

Toby Schmitz in Degenerate Art.Credit:John Marmaras

Clearly Toby Schmitz​ has been troubled by witnessing such phenomena in Australia, the list expanded by assorted abrogations of human rights, from whistle-blower laws to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. So the gifted playwright, director and actor has launched a preemptive theatrical strike against fascism, with his new play being a reminder of Nazism's rise, horrors and demise.

Schmitz'​s particular focus is on Hitler and his henchmen's obsession with art. They drew inspiration from Wagner, defined "degenerate" and worthy Aryan​ art, and later looted the Louvre and countless other European museums, filched treasures of Egypt's antiquity and planned the destruction and triumphant rebirth of Berlin. To varying degrees Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler​, Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer​ were arts-literate, inevitably following Hitler's lead of preoccupations with painting, music and architecture.


These five are characters in Schmitz's​ play, joined by Reinhard​ Heydrich​ (Rupert Reid), the Holocaust's author, and narrator Megan O'Connell​. They neither wear Nazi uniforms nor adopt silly accents as they lead us through the party's history. Schmitz​ wants them to be as ordinary as possible, because if we are only on the lookout for two-headed mass-murderers, the truly dangerous people – the ones who seem of and like us – will slip past our political scrutiny.

Although little in his history or interpretation of the protagonists is new, there is much to admire in the play, itself. Schmitz​ has penned language sufficiently poetic for the players to roll the words about in their mouths, chew on them and spit them out. One hears echoes of those absurdly underperformed plays of Steven Berkoff's​ such as East, West and Greek, in which the language may be heightened beyond the scope of the character, but not beyond the scope of the work as a whole.

Like Berkoff​, too, Schmitz​ has directed Degenerate Art with bullying, crunching choreography and belligerent delivery, while also letting the play poke fun at itself, so the whole pretence of performance as reality is routinely punctured. Amid this, Hitler (Henry Nixon), Goering (Giles Gartrell-Mills), Goebbels (Schmitz​), Himmler​ (Guy Edmonds), Speer​ (Septimus Caton) and Heydrich​ can often seem like cartoon characters. Now the likes of Trump or Abbott are routinely played for laughs, but the point is they are inherently buffoons (however destructive), while the leading Nazis – possibly Goering apart – were not.

And therein lies the work's fundamental flaw: I never felt terrorised by these people. O'Connell​ gives us litanies​ of horrors, but the menace conveyed by the actors is sufficiently diluted by the cartoonish satire to make any real sense of threat anaemic. Schmitz​ is right: these people were ordinary men as well as being monsters, but for us to walk out of the theatre unshaken is self-defeating. It is to make light of his own intent.

Nonetheless the play is crowded with potent moments of writing, directing and performance (including from the author), and includes screen contributions from Aron​ Murray of the works of art they dissect, delect​, abhor or steal. Nixon's Hitler is as much critic and actor as he is ideologically driven tyrant. Perhaps we should really start to worry when the current extreme right loses it philistinism​.

John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award

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