Attic Theatre company couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate time for a production of 1936 to appeal to its London audience. This is a truly educating, political and pertinent play, acted with a mixture of subtle clarity and theatrical vivaciousness.
1936 is a play that highlights exactly how dramatic the effects of the Olympic games can perceivably be - certainly more concerning and devastating than the possible transport problems and overcrowding that London is imminently facing. Tom McNab’s play actually goes as far as to ask if Hitler would have gone on to become so successful had Berlin not had the Olympic games that year. It may sound like a maddening question, but if America had boycotted the Berlin Olympics (as it seemed they might), perhaps Britain would have followed suit, and so on and so on until the Olympics were cancelled. If the Olympics had been cancelled, perhaps Hitler would not have become so powerful; perhaps The Holocaust would not have happened. This is all merely speculation however, and on the other side of the coin, perhaps the 1936 Olympics was a justified occurrence. Germany was becoming more and more prejudiced against Jewish and black people, but American Jewish and black athletes were still adamant that they would attend the games, whether in a prejudiced country or not. Therefore, America did not boycott the games and many of these athletes, such as Jesse Owens (played by Cornelius Macarthy in this production), went on to win several gold medals. For many Olympians it seems, their whole existence is geared towards competing in such an event, and as was stated by the discussion panel after the play, ‘Athletes shouldn’t be the ones to pay for political problems.’ The 1936 Olympics then was, in many ways, fantastic for the athletes (oppressed or not), but at the same time a possible aid to Hitler’s rise. 1936 is, at the very least, food for thought.
As well as being thought provoking, and at times, shocking, the play is very well acted by a fine cast throughout. The only slight hindrance is that the female members of the cast seem to give more theatrical performances than the men. The men give very natural, almost televised performances, whereas the women’s portrayals seem more heightened. Neither style is more or less successful; all the cast play their parts well, but, other than the fact that Leni Riefenstahl (Hannah Young) was a very artistic and therefore believably flamboyant character, it is hard to see why both Lauren St. Paul and Hannah Young’s characters seem more theatrical than the men’s characters. As I say, both acting styles are successful, believable and clear, but the reasoning behind the difference in styles seems to need more clarification. To hypothesize, it could be to demonstrate that men played a more authoritative role in society at that time, and therefore the cast is male-heavy, and the men’s acting styles are more grounded.
There are some particularly strong performances from Tim Francis as Adolf Hitler, Ryan McCluskey as William Shirer, and Hannah Young as Leni Riefenstahl. Young, as mentioned before, embraces the stage with artistic relish. She is a vibrant being, but not overbearing. McCluskey is highly successful at breaking down the fourth wall, as he narrates the story from the perspective of journalist and author, Shirer. He seems affable to us as a storyteller, pristine and polished in his performance. Finally Francis, as Hitler, is excellent. In many people’s minds, I’m sure Hitler is seen as an almost demon-like, non-human character. Francis’s portrayal however, shows that Hitler was indeed human. There’s an almost surprising amount of humour purveyed in scenes between Joseph Goebbels (John Webber) and him. It’s proven here that even someone as horrendously prejudiced as Hitler is human; he was a real person with genuine feelings and emotions - although I’m not condoning prejudice, or his actions for a second! We do ultimately see what many of us expect from Hitler though, which Francis achieves through a military directness and a subtly portrayed fierce drive, making him seem a dangerous and potentially unpredictable man.
The performances take place on Kevin Jenkins’ cold yet accessible and appropriate set. It makes use of the Lilian Baylis studio’s broad space, meaning the different areas of the set are easy to approach and uncluttered, allowing the whole show to run very smoothly. McNab’s coherently written play also benefits from very strong and placed direction from Jenny Lee, meaning this potentially convoluted and controversial subject matter is depicted in an intelligible and successful fashion.
1936 is a play full of dramatic irony, which makes us question the origins of prejudice, and perhaps whether we have slight hidden prejudices ourselves, buried beneath a will to conform to today’s attempts at political correctness. It is also fascinating to hear so many lines of text anticipating the arrival of the Olympics when we here in London can relate so heavily. 1936 causes us to contemplate our fears and worries about the forthcoming London Olympics, in comparison with the consequences of the Berlin Olympics that year. A visit to see McNab’s play at the Lilian Baylis studio is as much an evening of education, as an evening of commendably executed theatre.