Prague Fringe 2018
Set before, during and after the infamous Nazi-organised Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, this “work in progress” presents two female athletes at the top of their game who, because of Jewish ancestry, have to decide whether to resist or capitulate to the demands of the Nazi Party.
The 1936 Olympics, which took place shortly before the Second World War and were held in a feverishly pro-Nazi Berlin, are mostly remembered for Hitler’s refusal to shake black American gold-medal winner Jesse Owens’s hand. But the people who are often forgotten are Germany’s Jewish athletes, almost all of whom were taken off the national team and were deeply affected by the ultra-Aryan Games.
Two of these athletes, fencer Helene Mayer and high jumper Gretel Bergmann, are the stars of a “work in progress” performance at the Prague Fringe. On a stage that is all but empty except for a fencing mask at the back and a podium-like prop in the centre, the two athletes (portrayed by Avital Lvova and Tessie Orange-Turner, respectively) read their lines from the scripts they carry with them. And yet, despite a minor tumble here and there, they speak with so much passion and a desire to convey their words to us that their speech leaves the audience in a constant state of breathlessness.
We accompany them on their separate journeys: Mayer had won the gold medal in Amsterdam in 1928 and the silver in Los Angeles in 1932, while Bergmann, a long-time fan of the fencer, saw her as a role model for Jews in Germany, a label that the half-Jewish Mayer rejected.
The play makes a few veiled swipes at the current political situation in America, using words like “swamp”, “resistance” and “snowflake”, but no effort is made to make any clear comparison or develop the train of thought, and an obvious phrase like “Jewish ban” (to mirror the country’s controversial “Muslim ban”) is left unused in the scriptwriting toolbox.
Perhaps the most important part of the story, which deserves a bit more attention, is Mayer’s struggle with having to represent all Jews in the early years of the Third Reich and once she is given a place on the otherwise non-Jewish Olympic team.
But despite being a “work in progress”, this is a gripping depiction of how badly even the best athletes of their time were treated if they did not conform to the totalitarian regime’s notion of purity, and sadly, this issue is still topical.