Multi-award winning playwright Henry Naylor returns to the fringe with a stunning two-hander set in Nazi Germany that is both incredibly poignant and unnervingly timely.
A stunning two-hander set in Nazi Germany that is both incredibly poignant and unnervingly timely.
Games takes place across multiple Olympic games during the 1930s, focussing on two German athletes. Hopeful high jumper Gretel Bergman and renowned fencing prodigy Helene Mayer. Despite being linked by a shared Jewish ancestry the two could not be more different. With Gretel embracing her heritage and attempting to act as a symbol of resistance for the persecuted Jewish community, while Helene attempts to outrun her own family history. Yet both are drawn into their country’s politics and at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin are forced to choose who they stand with.
Despite Naylor’s deserved reputation as a outstanding playwright, Games initially struggles to find its feet. The storytelling starts a tad ham-fistedly, with much of the dialogue being expository and mechanical. Whilst the parallels initially drawn between past and present are incredibly on the nose and unsubtle. The insertion of “Make Germany great again” into the script was perhaps the most wince-worthy moment of this kind. Luckily however this soon settles down and by the second half, once the groundwork has been laid, we are able to get into the meat of the story.
And what a story it is, Naylor is able to deftly craft a tale that delves deep into themes of identity, nationality, politics, and questions whether we can ever really transcend the labels forced upon us by society. This is best embodied in Naylor's characters, who each wrestle with the label society has forced upon them and respond in widely different ways. It’s here, in his deft, measured, and incredibly compassionate treatment of the dilemma minorities face, that of being reduced to their labels and the conflict between trying to be seen as individuals whilst still retaining a sense of group identity, that the play is at its most timely in this age of identity politics.
This is all told through two marvellous performances that perfectly compliment the script. Tessie Orange-Turner as Gretel brings a wry humour and quiet cock-suredness to the role that made me instantly fall in love with the character. Orange-Turner embued Gretel with a confidence and sense of will that made me respect her whilst never thinking she was arrogant. This was perfectly contrasted with Avital Lvova’s brilliantly measured and subtle performance as Helene. Lvova brought a poised, dignified and regal sense of style to the fencer whilst embedding in her a true sense of tragedy and longing that made the pain's emotional climax all the more emotionally resonant.
It is in the play's bitter sweet and tragic end that the real power of the piece is found. In drawing on perhaps Europe’s greatest tragedy Naylor invites us to consider our present circumstances. It is a sobering ending but an incredibly important one, and makes Games all the more worthwhile to go out and see as soon as you can this festival.