As is the formula for many of Naylor‘s plays, where the minimal of actors are used, Games is a two-hander, based on a true story. Juxtaposing parallel lives of similar but different people, his plays often explore an argument about a time and situation that still resonates true today – in this case, whether there is any place for politics in sport.
Directed by Louise Skaaning, Games uses a minimalist set, with nothing more than a backdrop of three red vertical drapes and two black boxes of differing size, representing the podiums at the Games. It’s simple and effective and allows the audience to concentrate on the dialogue of the individuals. Naylor has an extraordinary knack for using simple conversation to explore deeper themes and arguments. He gives the audience enough background to set up the premise for the play and explores the argument with well-executed dialogue.
Europe is fractured; economies faltering. Anti-Semitism and right-wing populism are surging. The world’s biggest sporting event is threatened with a boycott. The year is 1936, and fencing prodigy Helene Mayer (Avital Lvova) has been selected as the Nazi’s token Jewish athlete for the Berlin Games, despite having been forced to leave Germany in 1935 and resettle in the United States because she was Jewish.
We learn Meyer’s rise to stardom. She has won the gold medal at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, becoming a national hero in Germany and is celebrated, with her photo plastered everywhere. In 1931, her father dies of a heart attack, something Naylor portrays as affecting her deeply. She finishes fifth at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, having learned, two hours prior to her competition, that her boyfriend has died in a military training exercise in Germany. At the 1936 Games, she is about to find she is fighting for more than just gold. Considered as the greatest athlete of her age, she is reviled by history after standing on the winners’ podium and giving the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.
In contrast, the other protagonist, Gretel Bergmann (Tessie Orange-Turner) is a Jewish field and track athlete who competed as a high jumper in the 1930s. Due to her Jewish origins, the Nazis prevent her from taking part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, after which she leave Germany and vows never to return. She idolises and holds Mayer in awe as a fellow Jew and athlete, She is chosen to present a gift of a box of butterflies when Mayer visits her school to inspire other young athletes, only to have the gift not accepted.
Avital Lvova as Helene Meyer is a convincing athlete in her white fencing gear and even embodies the look of the real Meyer, with her blonde plaited hair, delivering Naylor’s script with confidence and authority and her fencing moves with credibility. Tessie Orange-Turner as Gretel Bergmann is equally powerful and her embodiment of youth and ambition is captured so well in the scene where she is about to execute the high jump at Stuttgart in June 1936 (the competition just before the Berlin Games where she rose to world fame). However, because of her Jewish origins, she is prevented by the Nazis from taking part in the Berlin Games. In 1937, she leaves Germany forever.
Thought provoking and captivating performances, Naylor has once again done it again, using history and simple dialogue to explore themes that still resonate today.