Borders (*****) and Games (****) at the Arcola Theatre review

Borders and Games

Arcola Theatre, 22nd December 2018

I had only seen one of Henry Naylor’s acclaimed plays prior to this double header and that was Angel at this very venue. That was enough to know that I like the cut of his jib. Mr Naylor, prior to writing plays, was, amongst other things, the lead writer for Spitting Image and he has, as far as I can tell, always had an acute political conscience which he is prepared to put to good use in his writing. His first play, Finding Bin Laden, was a satire on the media treatment of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, (and it is now being made into a film,) whilst his second, Hunting Diana, dealt with conspiracy theories surrounding the Princess’s untimely death.

These were showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe as were his next offerings, The Collector, set in an Iraqi jail in 2003, and then Echoes and the aforementioned Angel, to complete the trilogy, Arabian Nightmares. Echoes is a two hander which contrasts two teenage women, one a Victorian colonialist adventurer, the other a Muslim jihadist. Angel is a dramatic monologue about the Angel of Kobane, a Kurdish sniper who became a symbol of resistance against Islamic State. All three plays were multiple prize winners at Edinburgh and have gone on to tour globally as well as to the Arcola.

You kind of know what you are going to get with a play from Mr Naylor. A scrupulously researched examination of a major issue of our time, (with a particular focus on the “Middle East” to date), told from the (often juxtaposed) perspective of individuals involved which sets out to even-handedly explore cause, effect and impact. Part history, part drama, part monologue and part exposition the plays cover a lot of ground in a relatively short span but don’t lack emotional heft. There is enough surprise in terms of dialogue, which is unafraid of deploying poetic symbolism where necessary, to set alongside the unfolding stories to keep the audience on its toes, and there is plenty of opportunity in terms of movement and impersonation to test the mettle of the actors. And, of course, text-based one and two handers are cheap to stage meaning Mr Naylor’s discourse can be quickly spread, as it deserves to be.

Obviously these subjects and structures are not much use to you if your idea of theatre is feel-good musicals but if serious, but never dour, political theatre floats your boat then don’t hesitate to seek out his work.

Borders adds another dimension to HN’s oeuvre to date. Premiered in 2017 at the Gilded Balloon it is another double monologue telling the stories of Nameless, a young graffiti artist in Homs protesting the Assad regime, and Sebastian Nightingale, a photographer who makes his name with an iconic early portrait of Osama Bin Laden, but who goes on to “sell out”, clicking lame-brain celebs for big money. Graffiti specifically, and art more generally, has, I now learn, played an important role in opposition to the regime in Syria since 2011, and Assad and his supporters have brutally punished its practitioners. The story of Nameless’s courage in using her art to incite resistance, and the passion which eventually leads to her exile, is very stirring, especially because, like many of NH’s previous protagonists, she is a young woman in a patriarchal society. Sebastian’s fall from grace, as he debases his own art and principles to chase fame and money, is equally riveting.

You can guess early on that the two of them, outsider and insider, are destined to meet but HN still conjures up a thrilling end. Of course this sort of story-telling, about a conflict few of us here understand at even the most basic level, is occasionally going to have to thwack the audience over the head to get its points across but HN once again finds a way to do this without getting in the way of the personal dramas. There are laughs, quite a few in fact, which often skewer the hypocrisies of Sebastian and of the men who seek to control Nameless. The other characters, played by our two actors, have sufficient presence to go beyond ciphers, Nameless’s Mum, her “boyfriend”, his dad and the elder statesman war correspondent, Messenger, who gnaws away at Sebastian’s conscience. The stories are inevitably contrived but that is probably a necessary pre-condition for theatre with this strong a message.

It wouldn’t work without two remarkable actors and that is precisely what we have here. Now in the original Edinburgh performances, and in the subsequent worldwide tour, Nameless has been played by Avital Lvova, who took over from the sadly missed Filipa Branganca in the tour of Angel, and who is also a fearsomely talented actor. In this Arcola run however the role of Nameless was taken on by Deniz Arixenas. The crib-sheet tells me that Ms Arixenas, who is of Kurdish and Syrian descent, is currently doing her Masters degree in Law with the intention of becoming a human rights lawyer. Acting’s loss is the legal profession’s gain. However if this woman can bring an ounce of her talent on stage to the task of making the world a better place then I can be assured, alongside so many of the young people I know, that the next generation will be able to unravel the mess that my, and previous, generations’ have made of our world. I confess couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Which made Graham O’Mara’s performances as Sebastian all the more exceptional. He nailed that thing where you know that, as a rich privileged beneficiary of the institutional and economic order imposed by the West on the world since WWII, you should help those who haven’t been so lucky, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. In a connected world where those post-war institutional structures are under pressure, where selfish ideology trumps co-operation and where I suspect, (largely suspect), arguments around the concept of “Western guilt” are likely to intensify, NH has come up with am intelligent shorthand for debate.

Games heads back a few decades to tell the story of German-Jewish athletes before and during the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics (Tourist and family had a good look around the imposing stadium, now home to Hertha Berlin, last year). The two protagonists, high jumper Gretel Bergmann and fencer Helene Mayer, actually existed and the main events portrayed in the two-hander actually happened, but from this HN has woven a more nuanced debate on the nature of identity, and the iniquity of fascism, than we had any right to expect Helene Mayer won a gold medal in 1928 in Amsterdam, missed out in Los Angeles in 1932 and won silver in 1936, but despite her fame and success was still forced to leave for the US in 1935 because she was Jewish. The discrimination against Gretel Bergmann was more over,t both before the Nazis assumed power in 1933 and thereafter, as she and other Jewish athletes were denied access to training facilities, competed separately and were stripped of titles. Many left but Helene Mayer returned in 1936 to compete for Germany as the regime succumbed to pressure from the US who threatened a boycott.

Ms Mayer was an enigmatic character, whose German identity might have eclipsed her Jewish heritage and who, at least publicly, was not critical of the Nazis. She returned to Germany again in 1941and lived there until her early death in 1953. Tragic geo-political pawn or naive opportunist who put her own sporting glory above the suffering meted out to her own people? Easy to see then why HN alighted on her story, and that of Ms Bergmann, who died just a year ago aged 103, whose own resistance was implacable and who was determined to point up Hitler’s racial theories for the bollocks it was.

Maybe not quite as powerful as Borders (and Angel for that matter), and a little heavy on the biographical exposition, Games will still make you think and is surprisingly resonant on wider issues of nationalism, self-identity, and the role of politics in sport (or do I mean sport in politics), all subjects you probably thought you had a settled view on. Directed, as was Borders (in conjunction with Michael Cabot), with a confident hand by Louise Skaaping, Games has another pair of actors on top form. Sophie Shad has already written, produced and acted in Kitty’s Fortune which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and her eagerness to tell Helene’s story shines through. She realistically captures her apparent ambiguities, internal conflicts and the impact of personal grief. Tessie Orange-Turner as Gretel has the physicality and grace of the athlete (maybe she is) and relays her character’s burning sense of injustice. In contrast to Borders the two meet on multiple occasions, Helene is Gretel’s original inspiration, but the use of the space and sparse props, (here two boxes and a flag, just two chairs in Borders), is similarly effective.

Henry Naylor has found a formula to educate us about complex political (and moral) questions without hectoring us and whilst still entertaining and moving us. And he usually brings it in at around an hour. In pretty much any space, (the credits here stop at the lighting design of Vasilis Apostolatos and stage management of Holly Curtis though I don’t doubt many others, from the research end through to the finished production at the ever welcoming Arcola, deserve credit).

I strongly advise you to hunt out more of HN’s his work. I will.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2017/10/07/angel-at-the-arcola-theatre-review/

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