After a bit of a break, I attended another Sydney Festival event last night - a music and theatre performance titled 'Ruhe' (Silence) that I found moving and emotionally absorbing. Each of the elements - the music, the spoken words, the setting, is excellent in its own way. But the wonder is that these very disparate elements come together so well.
It's a performance that deals with a subject I find troubling and fascinating: how do individuals and societies that collaborate with harmful - even evil - regimes come to terms with their behavior once the regime is overturned? Much has been written and said about this in relation to Europe after the second world war, and more recently of the aftermath of oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe. South Africa is dealing with the emotional and moral complexity of integrating oppressors and oppressed in its society, and Sri Lanka is just beginning to face this almost insuperable challenge.
'Ruhe' is presented by a Belgian theatre group, Musiektheater Transparant. It presents verbatim testimony from two Dutch survivors of the second world war who were attracted by German Nazism and who, even after the end of the war, found their own behavior explicable and justifiable. These two testimonies are voiced by actors who move informally among the audience who have been seated in a roughly circular fashion on 200 randomly chosen and arranged (and mostly uncomfortable) chairs. The ordinariness of this presentation is interspersed with achingly beautiful Schubert leider sung by the eleven members of the Collegium Vocale Gent. These very casually dressed, 'ordinary' men stand on their chairs to perform the leider. This seems odd, but it had the effect of surrounding us with beautiful voices and harmonies that provided a space for reflection and musing.
All of this was staged on the stone flagstones in the Gothic revival shadows of the Great Hall at The University of Sydney.
The performance provided no miraculous insight into how to reconcile deeply conflicted societies. Maybe it reminded us that societies are made up of individuals with diverse and often 'ordinary' motivations for collaboration with oppressive regimes. It certainly provides a wealth of visual and aural prompts to think about the complexities of our own and our society's moral views and assumptions.
As a footnote, it was timely to attend 'Ruhe' so close on the heels of Australia Day celebrations. I always feel very uncomfortable with the timing of Australia Day - marking, as it does, the anniversary of white settlement of Australia. It inevitably reminds us that our current existence as a society comes only at the price of the dispossession of the Indigenous peoples of Australia - a matter that calls, at the very least, for a process of reconciliation within our society.