Jim Creighton, Jonathan Battersby, David Baron, Tim Frances, Chris Myles, Josie Taylor, Peter Harding, Kate Cook, Rolan Bell
Had America boycotted the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the Second World War may never have happened.
Britain, her Commonwealth, France and Scandinavia would probably have followed suit, Nazism would have been discredited, and Germany would have lost its golden opportunity to sell itself to the world.
But although this possibility is raised in Tom McNabs new play, 1936, presented at the Arcola by Attic Theatre Company, the question of how things might have turned out differently is not its central focus.
Rather, it explores how Hitler came to embrace the Olympics, and America to endorse them, even though Germanys blatantly anti-Semitic behaviour undermined everything for which the Games stood.
Towards the plays start in 1933, Hitler is ready to abandon hosting the expensive Olympics, but is persuaded by Goebbels of their propaganda potential. The play then shows how ridiculous ideas can suddenly be pursued when people become all too eager to please the Fhrer. When Hitler hears that Germany won three gold medals in Los Angeles, Goebbels hastily agrees to deliver thirty in Berlin. The architect Werner March initially declares that it is impossible to build a 100,000 capacity stadium, but soon submits with a faint smile on his face. The actress Lena Riefenstahl agrees to create a (still highly acclaimed) film of the Olympics (Olympia), declaring that if Michelangelo had worried about the Medicis behaviour there would have been no Sistine Chapel.
Across the water, we can appreciate why the black American athlete, Jesse Owens, has no interest in boycotting the games. With blacks so excluded from American society, he has nothing to live for except his sport, and he sees his participation as a way of furthering the black cause. Owens is aware of Germanys oppression of the Jews, but feels that he must fight for his own people whom he sees as equally down-trodden.
All these points are strongly made, although the script sometimes relies too heavily on the protagonists explaining their arguments, which is to the detriment of creating three-dimensional characters. More disappointing is the way in which, with the exception of Owens, we learn little about the reasons why those who support the Games do so. The Head of the American Amateur Athletic Union, Avery Brundage, is won over with a place on the International Olympic Committee, but those buying him simply spout propaganda that Zionist fanatics are behind the proposed boycott. Of course, the President of the International Olympic Committee may be fearful of the embarrassment and administrative headache caused were the Berlin Games to be abandoned, but in direct contrast to the intelligent arguments for opposing the Games presented by Judge Jeremy Mahoney, many characters support for them tends to be assumed rather than explored.
The acting is generally good, although Tim Frances and Chris Myles fail to imbue the figures of Hitler and Goebbels with sufficient gravity. Capturing those figures unique brand of sinister charisma may be an impossible task, but this pair feel excessively lightweight. Frances almost seems reminiscent of Dick Shawns flower power Hitler from the original 1968 version of The Producers, and when Myles proclaims the Olympics to be a matter of national importance one is reminded of Sergeant Match declaring exactly the same words in Joe Ortons What the Butler Saw.
Nevertheless, Kevin Jenkins set is highly effective, sporting an Olympic flag that is eroded (like the Olympic ideals) by a Nazi flag shining through it, and a podium made up of shoes that hints at the horrors to come.
This is also one of those rare evenings in the theatre where the play makes up only half of the experience. After it ends, the audience is invited back into the auditorium to watch excerpts from Riefenstahls film, Olympia , and for a discussion on the plays themes with Tom McNab that never descends into self-congratulatory nonsense. On the night I attended Dorothy Odam, a British high jump silver medallist at the 1936 Olympic Games, was also present. She painted a vivid picture of what it was like to be a sixteen-year old enjoying a rare opportunity to travel abroad, but encountering soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth wherever she went.