It’s 1936 in Berlin, Hitler has been in power for three years and isn’t being very nice to the Jews and a few others too, Goebbels suggests that hosting the Olympics would be a good propaganda coup, the Americans debate the pros and cons of a boycott but send Jesse Owens anyway and Leni Riefenstahl films it. So tell us something that we don’t know… or rather, at least tell it in a way that makes the audience realise how monumental in all senses this Olympic Games was and how it set the tone for the corporate/political fest that we will soon have in London with a background of some running and jumping etc…
Rather like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, all the action takes place offstage. Tom McNab’s presentation is like the History Channel – history lite – and Jenny Lee’s direction flat and lifeless. The only performances with a bit of spark were from Cornelius Macarthy as Owens and Ryan McCluskey as American journalist William Shirer who at least injected a bit of energy into their lines. In fact, the whole evening was curiously lacking in energy: ironic considering it was a play about athletes.
Tim Frances gave a very odd rendition as Hitler and seemed to be rather afraid of his task. Playing well-known historical figures is a major challenge. Caricature and impersonation would have been inappropriate in this context, it is rather that actor and director need to find a way of showing us the essence of a figure, enabling us to overlook physical differences, not least because this is an era that is well within living memory for some and extremely familiar from film for others. Frances possessed not one jot of charisma that would have suggested that this unlikely man held much of Germany and Austria spellbound, and fascinated a fair number of the British royal family too. He played it like a middle manager, each measured tone delivered at precisely the same pace and level. It was as if he were discussing a visit of some local dignity to a factory rather than an international sporting event.
There was not much attempt to create a period atmosphere, designer Kevin Jenkins relying on art deco projections to delineate the scenes; furniture looked as if it had come from a makeshift rehearsal. It didn’t help that the stage was cluttered with a podium and a high jump as well as tables and chairs.
Staging Gretel Bergman’s high jump and Owens’ sprinting was always going to be problematic: the suspension of action and odd lighting that was used drew nervous titters from the audience and did not enhance the piece one iota. McNab seemed keen to impart reams of information regarding debates amongst American officials that were as dry as dust and gave no sense of what else was happening in the world, or if they did, I had long since nodded off.
After the Curtain call, the Company showed three short excerpts from Riefenstahl’s Olympia which was by far the most interesting part of the evening. McNab then led a panel of athletes and and actor Lauren St Paul in an audience debate. It was a fairly tame audience, possibly because it was press night, and mentions of meetings with Owens et al were greeted with oohs and ahs of wonder. The issues raised were all concerned with politics and particularly the events surrounding the 1972 and 1980 Olympics.
It would have been far more interesting had McNab written a piece that incorporated these issues in his play than the straightforward tell-it-as-it was approach that provided for a dull evening all round. Worst of all, journalist Shirer makes an impassioned speech at the end during the Berlin air lift, suggesting that if the USA had boycotted the 1936 Olympics, the holocaust may not have happened. That is rather like saying that, because the USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Now, that may have been taken directly from Shirer’s own writings, but surely such a ludicrous and rather offensive suggestion should not go unchallenged? Therein lies the real play. For all that was imparted this evening, it would be better to go and read a book.
Performed at Sadlers Wells until 5th August.