1936, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London


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The Independent Culture

The versatile Tom McNab – former Olympic coach, best-selling novelist, athletics historian and playwright – was the technical director on the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, the stage version of which is now topically and lucratively installed in the West End.  McNab’s play 1936 homes in, though, on a period when the activities of the International Olympics Committee were at their most questionable and explores to what degree the ideal of sport being above politics is ever practicable. 

The Berlin Olympics are lodged in the popular mind because of the way the black American athlete Jesse Owens destroyed Hitler’s dream of a showcase for total Aryan supremacy when he inconveniently won four gold medals. 1936 takes us behind the scenes to the political wranglings during the run-up to XL Olympiad.

We see how Tim Frances’s reluctant, non-sporty Hitler, who dismisses Ancient Greece as all “brutality and bumboys”, needs a lot of persuading by John Webber’s Goebbels that the Games can be a huge propaganda coup for the Reich.  We witness the heated disputes over a proposed American boycott because of the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews, spearheaded by Judge Jeremiah T Mahoney (Tom Hodgkins) and stymied by the dubious figure of former American Olympian Avery Brundage (Peter Harding) who determinedly accepts at face value Nazi avowals of non-discrimination and is bought off, it’s alleged here, by the promise of a high IOC office. 

Meanwhile, the position of Jewish athletes in Germany is brought into provocative correlation with the position of their black counterparts in the US as the play juxtaposes the fates of Jesse Owens (Cornelius McCarthy), denied the scholarship that was his due, and Gretel Bergmann (Lauren St Paul), the Jewish high-jumper who, despite equalling the national record a month before, found herself excluded from the German squad. 

Lucidly directed by Jenny Lee and performed by a vivid, multi-tasking cast, 1936 pays the price for perhaps trying to do too much.  It feels overly episodic and short-breathed and the framing device of beginning and ending with the Berlin air-lift of 1948 seems here too flimsy and unearned a perspective from which to ask: would history have been different if Hitler had been humiliated by a boycott?

This is an intelligent and informative piece, but the dialogue is sound-bite heavy, sometimes appearing like bullet-points for the panel discussions which, along with screened excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, take place after each performance.