Tom McNab’s play 1936 is a dramatisation of the events that led up to the Third Reich’s Berlin Olympics, focusing most of its attention to the attempt to boycott the Games by American lobbyists in New York. It is captivating subject matter. We are all well aware of the boycotts of 1980 and 1984, and even of the attempts to boycott the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but for most of us 1936 is associated with Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, and Hitler’s attempts to stage one of the biggest PR stunts the world had ever seen. By shifting the focus onto the back-room power struggles in America, McNab’s play offers an engaging exploration of the relationship between politics and sport, and of morality and individual expression.
Of course McNab does not shy away from dealing with Hitler’s endeavour to use the Olympics as a springboard for his Thousand Year Reich, and the political potential of the Games is made clear early on by Goebbels and his mistress. However, by contrasting Nazi Germany with contemporary America the play highlights how the Games are inescapably political. East Coast lobbyists, outraged at the treatment of Jews in Germany campaign for a boycott, while the Machiavellian head of the American Olympic movement, Avery Brundage, defends the Games, enticed by the prospect of being a future IOC president. Into this fascinating dispute, McNab adds the stories of African-American Jesse Owens and German-Jew Gretel Bergmann, two athletes whose race forced them to see the Games politically.
The politicisation of these athletes’ Olympic Games also allows the play to explore questions of morality in sport. Should Jesse Owens have backed the boycott of the Berlin Games, giving up his chance to better his lot in the States for the “greater good”? Or was his indifference to the plight of the Jews at the time understandable given the oppression and abuse that he and countless other Blacks suffered at the hands of the USA? These are questions which the play tackles head-on, and perhaps a bit too head-on for my liking. Ideological disputes spring up constantly in a rather ostentatious salute to Brecht. A concluding sermon from American journalist William Shirer (played by Ryan McCluskey) asks the audience, “What if we had boycotted the Olympics in Berlin? Would the world have changed?”, and after a staged debate on whether to boycott the Berlin Games – lasting about two minutes – the Chairman announces to the audience: “I believe we’ve dealt with the arguments thoroughly, let us now take it to a vote.” A nudge, of course, to the audience to take their vote as well.
However, the arguments are not explored thoroughly enough for the audience to make any such judgment. It’s just not possible in the 80 minuterunning time. There are simply too many stories. The two American lobbies, the IOC, Hitler, Goebbels, Jesse Owens and Gretel Bergmann all get a mention in McNab’s play, but to top it all off he introduces Leni Riefenstahl as well, juxtaposing her story and motivations for making art in the Nazi regime with Jesse Owens’ sport, and at one point even Michelangelo’s painting. The result is, unfortunately, a rather confused and muddled play which doesn’t do justice to its subject matter.
Nevertheless, there are some good performances, particularly Cornelius Macarthy as Owens, and Tim Frances as Hitler. Frances is especially worthy of note as he manages to overcome McNab’s frankly rather poor dialogue to deliver a compelling and persuasive interpretation of the Führer. However, the strength of this play is in its stagecraft and direction. The staging subtly and impressively conveys Riefenstahl’s Nazi aesthetics through a monolith stage-left, and Jenny Lee’s direction is clear and simple, allowing what is often a clumsy play some moments of clarity.
In case you hadn’t noticed the Olympics are on…
1936 runs at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells theatre, London EC1 until 5th August 2012. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.
Photos by Sheila Burnett.