Jesse Owens played by Rolan Bell
It's difficult to think about the performance separate from the issues around London 2012. For starters, enjoy the sign of the times scene where the two Germans responsible for the 1936 bid sit in a dark, silent office, tensely waiting for the phone to ring and a letter to follow and compare with the live transmission madness beamed around the globe when London learnt of its Olympic destiny in 2005.
As historical play it is educational with an easy to follow narrative thread. The action is seen through the eyes of US sports writer, William Shirer, who handily questions key events throughout and gives context, with the benefit of hindsight.
There's not much you can do with the on stage personas of Hitler and Goebbels but the suggestion that Goebbels' girlfriend calls him 'pussycat' and comes up with the line that the Olympics will be 'the making of Germany' is acceptably amusing. A sweet touch also, when the Führer finds out he can't listen to Strauss anymore, as his grandfather was Jewish. Unless, that is, his right hand man loses the relevant documentation to suit his musical preferences...
Leni Riefenstahl and Goebbel's mistress, Christine, bring charm, spunk and glamour to the otherwise drab stage but Riefenstahl's ambition for her filmmaking drives her to exploit the Nazi purse and produce perfect propaganda for the Third Reich, blind to other considerations. Her films are glorious yet terrible, furthering filmmaking but extolling the regime with false images and she won't be tempered by her more cynical friend's archness.
There is no heroic denouement to uplift the play. Most nations went to the 1936 Olympics, certainly the USA by a close vote by its athletic association and the UK trotted off with much less soul searching, mentioned in passing here. Nazi Germany hauled 33 gold medals, testifying to the world that the Third Reich was indeed a magnificent and efficient machine, which went on to to invade the rest of Europe and implement the Final Solution. The play is framed by scenes in the ruined Olympic Stadium, during the Berlin Blockade, 1948, when all has turned to dust.
The production makes the most of the humanity available. The only people the Olympic ideals are truly alive for are the athletes, who sadly expect nothing once the flame is extinguished, who wish only get to the hallowed stadia, to the heat of world class competition and the chance to shine. This is particuarly poignant in the figure of Jesse Owens, forced to enter his hotel by the kitchen door on his return to the US because, despite his 4 gold medals, he is still a black man in times of segregation. The battle between naive attempts to trust Olympic ideals can override all else and the blatant political compromises and manipulations performed in their name resonates for the contemporary Olympic movement.
1936 runs until 24 April at Arcola Theatre, Studio 1. Starts 8pm (Saturday matinee 3pm), tickets £16/10.