Back in 1989, before it was redeveloped, I visited the extraordinary complex that was host to the notorious Berlin Olympics on 1936. It was every bit as vast, as grand (and as grandiose) as Leni Riefenstahl's extraordinary film had suggested. But, inevitably, as my mind's eye pictured Jesse Owens' incomparable achievement of four gold medals, visions of Nazis - Hitler, Goebbels and Goering - polluted the scene. And I wondered - how did it all happen?
Tom McNab's 1936 (for Attic Theatre Company at the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre until 5 August) explores the events leading up to the Games as the Nazi regime, masterminded by the Mephistophelean propaganda genius Goebbels and his perfect instrument Riefenstahl, created the biggest public relations exercise in history.
Of course, it nearly didn't happen. Hitler (played by Tim Frances as less a psychopathic monster and more a ruthless CEO) didn't want to spend the money, didn't want to deal with the bureaucrats and definitely did not want to embrace the Olympic family. But Goebbels (John Webber) persuaded him otherwise and Riefenstahl (Hannah Young) flattered the Fuhrer into submission. But that was only the start. The Americans had to be won over, and Goebbels' inside man was ambitious, amoral Avery Brundage (Peter Harding) who gets a well-deserved skewering from start to finish.
The athletes appear only fleetingly, but Jesse Owens (Cornelius Macarthy) and Gretel Berbmann (Lauren St Paul) show how the competitors, though stars of the greatest show on earth, are mere pawns in the hands of ruthless politicians, as they were later in 1980 and 1984.
As a drama, 1936 is compelling, its Owens-like pace slowed only occasionally by journalist William Shirer's (Ryan McCluskey) exposition of the politicking. McNab, as one would expect of a man whose life has been dedicated to sport, the arts and education, has written a play that works well for the sports fan aware of the issues and for those new to the hideous beauty of the Berlin Games.
Photograph by Sheila Burnett