In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Germany – famously seen by the Nazi leaders as a platform to prove their racist theory of Aryan supremacy. In order to appease the international outcry on the strict race criteria for the German team, one athlete with a Jewish father, Helene Mayer, was allowed to compete for Germany. This play is about the lead up to the 1936 Olympic Games as experienced by Mayer, a world class fencer, and another Jewish athlete, high-jumper Gretel Bergmann (who was excluded from the Games themselves).
The way in which the two athletes react to the political turmoil surrounding them could not be more different. Mayer is an athlete who aims to keep sport free from politics; she doesn’t feel Jewish, and wants to keep out of the political furore surrounding the games. Bergmann, on the other hand, is more realistic, and realises that she is a beacon for the Jewish community. She must win, for the sake of everyone depending on her.
The set is minimalist: just a winner’s podium, which the two actresses (Avital Lvova and Tessie Orange-Tuner) often sit on. There are three long, plain, red banners behind the winner’s podium, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see them with swastikas on. The costumes are equally simple, and there are no props, so the whole production rests entirely on the two actresses alone – and they are both excellent. Lvova’s icy and slightly cold Mayer is in wonderful contrast to the fiery and passionate Bergmann played by Orange-Turner.
At one point in the play, Bergmann talks about the fascist propaganda that has started to appear around Germany. However, the slogans she mentions are actually ones used by Trump in the last election: ‘Drain the swamp’ and ‘Make Germany Great Again’. It was jolting, pulling me out of the moment, feeling forced-in just for the sake of making up-to-date political commentary. No matter what you think about Trump, he isn’t actually a fascist, and using his campaign slogans is a lazy and inaccurate comparison that cheapens the real-life drama.
That slip aside, Games is a well written production about a largely unknown aspect of one of the darker moments in Olympic history. The two actresses are compelling in their performances, holding your attention throughout.