Games by Henry Naylor
Directed by Louise Skaaning. Gilded Balloon and Redbeard Theatre in association with Holden Street Theatres. The Arch Holden Street Theatres. Adelaide Fringe. February 12 – March 16.2019.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Sophie Shad and Tessie Orange-Turner in Games
Three blood-red banners hung from the black walls of the stage of the hot and steamy unventilated The Arch at the Holden Street Theatres. A pervading sense of discomfort spread through the converted church. Uncomfortable as it may have been, the discomfort seemed appropriate as the packed audience sweltered during Henry Naylor’s latest triumph. Set against the threatening rise of German fascism, Games recalls the fortunes and struggles of two elite athletes of the Weimar period,champion Olympic fencer, Helene Mayer and Track and Field athlete Gretel Bergman.
As Helene Mayer, blonde Sophie Shad in white fencing uniform appears the ideal image of the Aryan German maiden. The irony is that Mayer’s father was Jewish and her mother Aryan, and she consequently suffered the anti-semitic judgement of her time, in spite of the matriarchal lineage of Jewish heritage. Gretel Bergman was Jewish and an elite high jumper at the time of the Nazi’s ominous rise to power. Director, Louise Skaaning has cast dynamic coloured British actress, Tessie Orange-Turner as Bergman, lending the role a powerful commentary on discrimination. We are instantly confronted with racial, political, and gender prejudice and injustice Shad and Orange-Turner are outstanding as Mayer and Bergmann. Shad’s Mayer is politically naïve, disclaiming her Jewish legacy, discounting the influence of politics in sport until she is finally compelled to acknowledge the horrific consequences of Hitler’s ascension and her labelling as a Jew.. The younger Bergmann, forcefully played with gritty determination by Orange –Turner, pleads for solidarity and the strength and conviction to stand up to the forces of discrimination. It costs her a place in the ’36 Berlin Olympics. Mayer competes and it costs her the Gold. Each is the victim of her race, her religion and the dangerous will of the State.
In a series of pointedly sharp monologues, interspersed with occasional interaction with each other and imaginary characters, briefly created by Shad and Orange-Turner with deft skill and clarity., each performer outlines the perilous trajectory of their careers at a time when their homeland stood on the precipice of madness, which eventually consumed the world.
Naylor’s play is no cloistered commentary on our time. Hitler’s quoted claim to drain the swamp of Weimar and make Germany great again resonates with chilling contemporary force. Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender and political persuasion is the bedrock of Naylor’s often poetic and inescapably cautionary text. Skaaning’s insightful interpretation and simple minimalist staging with Shad’s and Orange-Turner’s carefully researched characterizations compel contemplation on the dangers that confront today’s world. Naylor, like Bergmann, warns that we can not hide behind a mask of mesh and simply parry , thrust and riposte against the vacant air.
Games is a timely call for action, performed with energetic conviction , shining a light history’s warning that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it.