Monday 19 April 2010

Shoulder-shrugging sportsmen

1936, Arcola, London

It is just possible that the Arcola is at the forefront of a soon-to-come theatrical trend in being the first to stage a play about the Olympics, with the added advantage of being able to do so in the same area of London where the cranes are looming. The text chosen to bear the torch is Tom McNab’s radio play 1936, which looks at the darkest of the modern Olympic Games, those hosted by Nazi Germany in 1936 in spite of Hitler’s initial financial worries, and upon the insistence of his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

The intriguing story behind the event is depicted through sketches and fragments, in a chronologically tidy flashback narrated, with heavy American accent, by real-life journalist William Shirer, played by Jim Creighton. And Shirer’s appearance on the set, opening the evening, reveals and anticipates the back-taste of the production to come: it has a hint of the Graham Greene’s spy novel, mixed with an Humphrey Bogart ambition.  There are cigarettes, trench coats - the Nazi ones angular and thick and rigid, the American ones softer and scruffier - femme fatales in dressing gowns, and a touch of fog; there are tight-fisted demonstrations of power and confidently-handled glasses of Scotch. Shirer joins Judge Jeremiah Mahoney on a crusade to convince the Olympic Committee that America should pull out of the Games to protest against the treatment of Jewish citizens; because of the private interests of those involved, they fail. Would the war have happened anyway if they had succeeded?

This is an interesting historical ‘if’, even more so given its recent contemporary double: before the Beijing Olympics, it was often suggested that Western countries should take a much clearer stance against human rights violations in China, and there was a time when it didn’t seem impossible that athletes and public would boycott the Games. But the 2008 Olympics went ahead, just like the 1936 ones. This was partly because of the economic investments, and partly because of the athletes: it is very difficult to convince a group of people who have dedicated their own life to this one and only chance of winning a medal that they should give it up for the good of other people they have never met, and who are being more or less discretely discriminated against in an out-of-sight country.  Arguably, the difficulty is due not so much to indifference or selfishness, but rather to the generalised lack of an informed political consciousness, a lack which cannot be remedied in a few days when the need arises. For the same reason, actress and director Leni Riefenstahl, played at the Arcola with beautiful coldness by Kate Cook, did not question the regime that was paying her to produce a technically revolutionary movie about the 1936 Games. Her presence in the play is a clever complement to the moral shoulder-shrugging of the sportsmen.

Unfortunately, in other aspects 1936, somehow like its protagonists on both fronts, lacks political subtlety. It decides to layer the poignancy and fascination of its main topic by making the argument that in 1936 the United States themselves weren’t free from hypocrisy and transparently democratic, given their treatment of black athletes like Jesse Owen - if this parallel wasn’t clear enough, Jesse, convincingly played by Roland Bell, has to spell it out for us in so many words during a conversation with Judge Mahoney. The point must be that no man should ignore racism towards any other man, or else disaster ensues, but it would have been better off if it had been left hinted at, rather than waved around. McNab depicts the anti-Semitism of Count Latour, at the time President of the Olympic Committee and all things considered, a bit too understanding of Hitler’s feelings towards Jews, as an amusing but isolated example of how the rest of Europe felt before the war started. And adding to the simplification, Kevin Jenkins’ design includes a podium made of amassed shoes, surely by now one of the most hackneyed theatrical props for the Holocaust. These flaws are not fatal, but they seriously wound nonetheless.


Till 24 April 2010


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The Stage
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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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