Review: 1936 - inside the Nazi Olympics

By John Nathan, July 27, 2012
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Lilian Baylis Studio, London EC1

Tom McNab’s play about Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics is full of detail, which is perhaps unsurprising for a writer who is a former Olympic official, athletics coach and sports novelist.

Yet while the author efficiently sets out arguments and fascinating facts about the Nazi Games, he does not squeeze much drama out of it. Among the historical figures that populate his play, there is no one whose fate we become emotionally attached to, not even Gretel Bergmann, the great long jumper who trains in Britain because she has been thrown out of her German athletic club for being Jewish.

McNab’s dialogue exists mainly to drive plot. This is the kind of historical drama in which historical figures speak in history-advancing sentences — some of them perhaps more amusingly than the author intended. Goebbel’s promises a brooding Hitler a games which will be “even better than the Nuremberg rallies” — a benchmark of excellence that I am guessing was rejected early on by Lord Coe for London 2012.

But if McNab is more interested in educating than creating drama, on that level he, and this solid if uninspired production directed by Jenny Lee, succeed. The prejudice experienced by the US’s black Olympians from their compatriots is a thought-provoking parallel to the racism suffered by Germany’s Jews. No wonder Jessie Owens could not be persuaded to protest against German antisemitism by boycotting the games. Barred from US scholarships and athletics clubs, Berlin was his chance to run against white athletes. Gretel, meanwhile, having equalled the German record, was dropped for the German team for not being good enough.

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    Last updated: 2:03pm, July 27 2012