'Games' is the story of two world-class German-Jewish athletes, and their extraordinary battles to try and compete in the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
It's a cautionary tale for our times.
Henry Naylor's 'Games', based on a true story, tackles identity and politics among some extremely relevant themes though set in Berlin, 1936.
Here, Henry himself chats away and reveals more about what we can expect from the show.
This is based on a true story. Tell us more… It’s the story of two world-class German-Jewish athletes, and their extraordinary battles to try and compete in the Nazi, Berlin Olympics of 1936. One was Helene Mayer, an Olympic gold-medallist who was desperate to regain her title. The other was Gretel Bergmann, an up-and-coming high jumper who broke the European record just weeks before the Games. The Nazis were determined to have a ‘Jew-free’ games, and so Helene and Gretel endured some of their fiercest struggles away for the sporting arena. It’s a tale about identity, the rise of political extremism and anti-semitism which is sadly very relevant for today.
Have you learned anything new since coming up with 'Games'? Most people know the story of Jesse Owens at Berlin ‘36. But no one I knew – and myself included – knew the extraordinary story of the Jewish competitors. When I started reading up about it – I was struck by how relevant the story was for today. And how it was important to remind people of the dangers of right-wing populism – and where it can lead. After all, extremism seems to be a growing global problem. America has Trump, the right has surged in the UK after Brexit, France – Le Pen… And sadly, the story is highly relevant for Australia too, after the Cronulla riots and the rise of the One Nation Party. It’s a story which had to be told.
When did you decide to turn this into a show? I can remember the exact moment! I was touring my play 'Angel' with actress Avital Lvova in October '17. We were doing a festival in Cape Verde – and after the gig we went to a bar – where everyone spoke Portuguese. We didn’t. So we were a bit bored, trying to pass the time – and I said ‘Vita. I need to write something expressly for you. You’re German-Jewish, built like an athlete – let’s just Google that’. So we searched ‘German-Jewish athlete’ – and Helene’s story pinged up. We spent the whole evening reading links to her tale.
What have been some of the challenges you've faced when it came to putting it together? When writing about historical characters – you want to make sure you’re doing them justice. You’re basically bringing people to life who can’t answer back. It’s a big responsibility, and one which weighed on us heavily. We had a Q&A session, when we were doing the show in London – and an audience member was in floods of tears. Her father had been a German-Jewish Olympic-level athlete who had had to abandon his ambitions and flee Nazi Germany – and he’d actually known Bergmann and Mayer. He’d talked about them often. Thankfully, she thought we’d done well. She thought Tessie Orange-Turner had brilliantly captured Gretel’s feisty-street energy. And Sophie Shad had done a wonderful job at portraying Helene’s icy focus.
You've had a pretty impressive track record when it comes to accolades for your plays. When did you discover your passion for the arts? When I was seven – we had a rather wild teacher, who always used to mark homework in the lessons (so she could go out clubbing in the evening). She knew I was a bit of a chatterbox, so while she nursed her hangover and did her own homework in school-time, she used to put me in front of the class, and tell me to tell the class a story. Every day. I think that’s when I learned my storytelling skills!
Is there a particular story you haven't yet told that you're keen to explore? There are several. At any one time, I’m usually exploring several different stories. At the moment I’m toying between four shows – a musical, a kids show, a Second World War show and a cop show. I’ll choose which one I’m going to write around March-time, because that’s when I’ll have to submit a show title and a blurb for the Edinburgh Festival. One of those shows will be beginning to ‘leap out’ about then. It’ll feel more relevant than any of the others.
What are you looking forward to the most when it comes to presenting this show as part of Adelaide Fringe? I would say the sunshine! But I think this year, South Australians would do with a bit less of it… So I guess the audiences. I’ve played the Holden Street Theatres at the last three Fringes, and some of the same punters have come back every year. It’s always nice to have a bit of banter with them.
Why do you think it's a good fit for the festival? I know from my previous experiences here, that Adelaide theatre-goers like theatre which ‘says something’. And that fits my own philosophy. Theatre should be playing a part in the national debate. The themes which we deal with in 'Games' – identity, racism, political extremism, humanism - will resonate with Aussies as much as anyone.
Describe the show in three words. Timely. Olympic. Epic.
'Games' plays The Arch at Holden Street Theatres (Adelaide Frnge) 12 February-16 March.