Poster for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

Poster for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

Image by Ben Sutherland

Daniel Nelson

An anti-Assad graffiti artist who flees for her life, a social conscience photographer who swaps floods for floodlights, two Jewish sportswomen fighting for a place in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics: the Arcola scores again with a fascinating double-bill, Borders and Games.

The writer, Henry Naylor, has won or been nominated for 34 international awards in under four years, and it’s easy to see why.

In Borders, two characters take it in turns to tell their stories. The Syrian artist (played by Deniz Arixenas, a Syrian-Kurdish heritage who in real life wants to be a human rights lawyer) grows from a child with paints to a police-dodging activist bombarded by bombs and by religious extremists as intolerant as the regime, and is then clobbered by the consequences of personal decisions forged in the crucible of a deliriously deranged civil war.

Her passion is counterpointed by a initially well-meaning British photographer stymied by his inability to sell pictures of a Central Asian flood who by chance takes an iconic image of Osama bin Laden (“the world’s most tedious terrorist”), but drifts into fame and fortune, family and a nice house, by swapping crises for celebrities.

The two life-trajectories stand on their own, one with idealism, personal commitment and real politik, the other with cynicism, materialism and the gift of being born in the right place. Their choices - impossible decisions for the unnamed Syrian, safe options for the photographer - finally pitch them into a space where they are no longer on solid ground…

It’s powerfully hard act to follow. In Naylor’s second two-hander, Games, the protagonists come together a little earlier, in time (the Nazi era) and in their own lives, when the German schoolgirl athlete Gretel Bergmann meets her idol, fencer Helene Mayer. 

They are real historical figures. Naylor plays up Mayer’s determination not to be typecast as German or Jewish but to be a fencer in order to dramatise the contrast with Bergmann, who has a desire to win gold to shatter Hitler’s racist theories.

Both were victims of anti-Semitism (they were denied training facilities, and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels ordered that "no comments may be made [in the press] regarding Helene Mayer's non-Aryan ancestry") and both became US citizens (Bergmann died last year, aged 103). Their responses to state-sponsored racism and politics are the focus of the piece – an issue that still raises its controversial head at many global sporting events.

Games lacks the theatrical force of the destructive drama of Borders but it’s a subtle and absorbing account of two lives and an important scratching of an old and recurring human scab.

Great value double bill.

+ 13 December, post-show Q&A with the cast of both shows, free

* Borders and Games are at the Arcola, 24 Ashwin Street, E8, until 22 December. If you book both you save a third on the price. Info: 7503 1646


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