“But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia…”
Pindar, ‘First Olympian Ode’
At the 1936 Olympics, every gold medallist was gifted an oak-tree sapling alongside their gleaming medal. Dismayingly, the trees were instigated as part of Hitler’s Olympics, loosely conceptualised as a gesture to the Nazi motto ‘blut unt boden’ (blood and soil), because there’s something quite poetic about the idea of gifting Olympic athletes future oak trees. Henry Naylor’s new play Games makes no mention of tree saplings, but it does explore the histories of two female German Jewish athletes in the run up to the ’36 Olympics.
Following their rise to power in 1933, the Nazis began barring Jewish athletes from German sporting facilities and associations, as well as stripping them of any German titles and striking wins from the record books. Two athletes affected by such programmes were high jumper Gretel Bergmann and former Olympic gold medallist, fencer Helene Mayer. While Bergmann was ultimately prevented from competing in the 1936 Olympics, Mayer was drafted onto the German team as the ‘token Jew’ in a Nazi bid to appease American calls to boycott the Games. Mayer eventually won silver and, like every other German medal winner that year, gave a Nazi salute on the podium.
Naylor choreographs the histories of both women along a political spectrum. Bergmann, at one end, occupies a territory where politics and sport are inextricably linked. ‘I am the lie of racial superiority,’ she says of her athletic prowess. Mayer, situated at the other end, insists that the two have no business with each other. ‘There should be no politics in sport,’ she repeats, almost as a kind of mantra. Both Avital Lvova as Mayer and Tessie Orange-Turner as Bergmann are exemplary, portraits of controlled contrast. Lvova simmers with the disciplined poise of an athlete secure in the self-knowledge of superior skill, while Orange-Turner burns with the moral injustice of being barred by racial dogma despite her talent.
Naylor is a three-time Fringe First winner, and although I haven’t seen any of his previous productions, it’s not difficult to see why he’s been showered with accolades. Games is one of the most accomplished pieces of theatre I’ve seen at the Fringe in recent memory. There’s a lyric quality to Naylor’s writing, but it’s an un-showy kind of lyricism, one very much in the service of character and dialogue. And his handling of character is refreshingly ambiguous. Both women are allowed to embody completely different points of view—Lvova’s Mayer, having once been Germany’s sweetheart, is desperate to maintain that position, and her political neutrality, rather than upend her entire sense of self to become unwilling champion of a label she barely identifies with. By contrast, Orange-Turner’s Bergmann is passionately convinced that, as minority Jewish-German athletes in a state increasingly hostile to Jews, she and Mayer have a responsibility to the larger Jewish community rather than their own personal achievement.
The simple staging—three red banners hanging behind a medal podium on an otherwise bare stage—means that one’s full attention is devoted to the story, the language, the performances. With respect to the particular choices confronting each of his characters, in refraining from making obvious moral judgements, Naylor resists a clear black or white interpretation of the historical events. Everything comes together in Games to create a piece of theatre that is thought-provoking, beautifully-written and utterly mesmerising.
One sour note, one minor complaint. That being a not-so-thinly-veiled ‘make Germany great again’ comparison between Hitler and Trump. A writer with Naylor’s obvious gifts should be more attentive to such heavy-handed tactics wholly out-of-keeping with this otherwise exceptional play.
Games is on at Gilded Balloon Teviot until 27th August. More info here.