1936, Berlin. The Olympic games are underway and international delegates accept Swastika – branded invitations to cocktail parties and arena events. The Olympics become a barometer for fascist sympathies; some accept their invitations guiltily – others, quite willingly. Although the Nazi dialectic is strange and unsettling to outsiders, it is well known and feared by various German minorities, who have been fighting to survive for years. Enter Helene Mayer, Olympic gold–winning fencer (Avital Lvova), and Gretel Bergmann, high–jumper (Tessie Orange–Turner). Both women are Jewish, and both are insistent upon their eligibility to represent Germany in the Olympic games.
Henry Naylor’s script concerns itself primarily with participation – what it means, and who gains from it. Mayer has flourished within the establishment of German sports, and she believes she can participate in the games without representing anyone except herself. Bergmann, however, believes that participation and representation are equivalent. In her model, a Jewish sportswoman in the Olympics is representative of all oppressed Jews. Naylor builds a powerful argument between the two characters which is in its own way, is a fencing match. Points are scored as the two women clash over reason.
Unfortunately, the audience don’t see much of this argument on stage. Mayer and Bergmann only ever interact three times. The rest of the performance is divided into sequential monologues: Mayer talks about her struggle to stay in the sport, and then Bergmann takes her turn. Although Naylor’s commitment to the facts is refreshing (it is doubtful Mayer and Bergmann ever met frequently), the delivery of information can feel static and formulaic. It also means the two actors struggle to build any kind of rapport (be it convivial, or confrontational) across the entire play.
Louise Skaaning’s direction positions athletics as statuesque, rather than fluid. Physical movement is never frenetic – rather than riposte and jump across the stage in competition scenes, Lvova and Orange–Turner hold fixed stances and make savage eye contact with their spectators. This is effective and ensures the lens of the play remains on Naylor’s words.
The set design in Games is simple and effective. As the audience file into the Teviot Dining Room, they walk past red banners reminiscent of an emerging Reich. The crimson and black colour scheme is demonstrative of a will to power and the possession of others. A podium in the middle serves as a reminder that there is a first and second place, and in the hierarchical obsession of the Third Reich, second place is a dangerous position to be in.
Games offers a cutting insight into the systematic savagery of fascism, as well as the role that sport has within representing the oppressed. Lvova and Orange–Turner both do their historic characters justice and command the stage with intensity. However, more opportunities to see the actors integrate, even if it is not conversationally, would support this important story in making it more emotionally tactile.
Games is playing at Gilded Balloon until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see here.
Photo Credit: Henry Naylor