Award-winning veteran playwright Justin Fleming examines Hitler's relationship with Wagner in this new play
People often model themselves after their idols: Taylor Swift has inspired countless girls to pick up a guitar; everything Kate Middleton wears in public immediately sells out in stores; and Hitler loved Wagner’s Rienzi so much it may have inspired him to climb the ladder of power in Germany and kill millions of people.
Or at least so goes the working theory behind Dresden, a new play by veteran Australian playwright Justin Fleming. Fleming’s theatrical sensibility frequently blends classical figures and classical works with a kind of colloquial, charmingly anachronistic dose of Australiana, and that’s all at play here. There’s Richard Wagner (Jeremy Waters), hard at work on Rienzi, dealing with critics and demanding actors (Thomas Campbell) and conductors (Dorje Swallow). His wife Cosima (Renee Lim) dutifully records his memoir and advocates for his legacy.
And there’s Adolf (Yalin Ozucelik), just an intense-looking teenager in Dresden with a pal, Gustl (Ben Wood), so enraptured by Wagner’s piece of music drama that he cannot speak; he claps long after the audience at large have stilled their hands, and he remains in his seat long after everyone else has gone home. He has been moved.
Adolf flirts with writing his own libretto, but he can’t quite do it. Gustl says it’s because Adolf writes without love, but whatever the reason, Adolf follows the call to politics instead – and, horrifically, we know the rest.
The play flirts with the fiction and theatricality of politics (much like Sydney Theatre Company’s much more rigorous take on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui earlier this year), but it’s mostly a florid, grand look inside parallel genius, a piece that ties Wagner’s music even tighter to the man who loved it, and in this play uses it as a roadmap for unforgivable crimes. Your willingness to go along with the ride will depend on which lens you’d prefer to use to view history: one that humanises its central figures, despicable or not, or one that gives humanity and a voice to those usually denied it, like victims or the oppressed. This play’s point of view might not feel urgent in 2018.
Still, Suzanne Millar’s production is smartly-judged and feels driven by human curiosity, empathy and despair. Fleming’s flourishing language, which is frequently on the purple side of prose, is thankfully tempered by a harsher, more unforgiving setting – Patrick Howe’s sleek set design. The production’s one extravagance, a special effect saved for the final scene, is eerie and near-beautiful. Max Lambert’s sound design adds more music – and Wagner – to the dialogue, reminding us who this ‘Richard’ before us really is. (We never forget who Adolf really is). Generous laughter sprinkled its way throughout the audience on opening night, particularly knowing chuckles over references to making art and theatre from the invited arts crowd.
However. This week, the news has been filled with stories of American concentration camps and deaths in Australia’s offshore, inhumane detention facilities. Dangerous leaders are everywhere we turn right now. If this is Dresden – if we are in a world that has created and perpetuated more hate crimes – does it matter what our leaders were listening to? Dresden is a genius fantasy that hits uncomfortably close to home, and ironically, this Wagnerian-driven plot can’t help but feel tone deaf.