Taking place in an East London which is changing face, due in part to the arrival of the 2012 Olympics Games, 1936 is a well-timed production, running at the Arcola Theatre for most of April. Bookended by scenes set in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1948, the play is narrated by real-life journalist William Shirer as we cover events from 1931-1935 leading up to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as the news about the burgeoning anti-Semitism under the Nazi regime began to spread throughout the world, forcing the American sporting community to make a stand against what they saw as a betrayal of the Olympic ideal.
Following threads both in Hitler’s regime as figures such as Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels tried to persuade the Fuhrer that the Games were an opportunity to promote Nazi Germany to the world, and in the US sporting administration as more principled people argued for a boycott in the face of bureaucratic resistance. Counterpointing these discussions are the experiences of two athletes, Gretel Bergmann a German Jewish high jumper and Jesse Owens the black American sprinter.
It was originally written as a radio play and though it has been developed thoroughly into a stage play, it betrays its roots in the short scenes, the multitude of characters and the sometimes overly descriptive prose. The cast actually cope admirably well with the multiple roles, only Tim Frances’ genuine toothbrush moustache means he looks a little odd when playing a US general. As Hitler though, he provides an intriguing look at the politician and tactician behind the tyrant and the scenes with Chris Myles’ obsequious Goebbels are quite entertaining. Jonathan Battersby does really well with his roles and Kate Cook shines as the uncompromising Leni Riefenstahl, her pursuit of artistic excellence at the expense of basic human rights being starkly arresting.
There is a surprising fluidity to proceedings despite the quick changes, everything is extremely well choreographed, and the brevity means that nothing outstays its welcome. On the other hand, it does mean that there’s little characterisation that can be achieved, ironically it’s the more recognisable figures of Goebbels and Hitler who get the most notable character development! This however fits in with the documentary-like reportage feel that this piece is suffused with.
The post-show discussion was very illuminating in this respect: we found out that all but one minor character were real figures and most scenes were based on some kind of historical record and McNab’s passion for the subject really came through. Combining it with a short set of clips from Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia was also a nice touch, as it showed us many of the things referred to in the play.
On its own, 1936 is a curiosity rather than a must-see, playing too much like a documentary than a play to really work as an engaging piece of drama. However, in combination with the documentary clips and the post-show discussion, it comes to life as an interesting look at what happens when sport and politics mix.