Games by Henry Naylor is a play about the parallel experiences of two Jewish athletes in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Under the anti-scientific taxonomy of the Nazi party, all Jews were barred from performing in the games, with the exception of Helene Mayer, an Olympic gold-medalist fencer, and the near exception of Gretel Bergmann, a track and field athlete who was removed from the German national team just two weeks before the Olympics.
The play contrasts the experience of Mayer (Sophie Shad), an athlete noted for her ‘Aryan’ appearance despite her Jewish heritage, with that of Bergmann (Tessie Orange-Turner), who is open about her Jewish identity. Through confident, strong performances, Shad and Orange-Turner invite the audience to empathise with the choices and compromises these women were forced to make as they negotiated public life under a fascist dictatorship.
Games is a minor departure for Naylor, whose works normally focus on wartime atrocities in the Middle East, but the writing is predictably brilliant, and the smaller stakes allow space for the less forceful moments to leave an impression. The result is a polished production which compares favourably to sports biopics like Chariots of Fire, but explores themes of global relevance beyond that of national pride and personal achievement.
Some momentum is lost when the play veers too closely to the allegorical. These stories are worth telling for their own sake, and the audience should be given the credit to draw their own parallels with contemporary events. Explicit references to President Trump serve only to underline points that were already plainly visible for those who wish to see them. Ultimately, however, Games sticks the landing: this is enthralling theatre held up by two outstanding performances.
Games by Henry Naylor plays at Holden Street Theatres until 16th March. Tickets can be purchased here.