Borders and Games ★★★★

This telling pairing of plays connects oppression and prejudice in 21st-century Syria and pre-war Germany

Henry Naylor writes theatre that makes you sit up and listen. He needs you to engage with the terrors and injustices of the Syrian conflict now; he wants you to share his indignation at historic wrongs and persecution in Nazi Germany. But equally he knows that to hammer home his message, he’d best not hammer you over the head with it. That’s where his glorious gift for humour comes in. Naylor has an impressive comedy pedigree as a lead script writer on Spitting Image and contributor to radio comedy greats, including Dead Ringers, and there were years of successful stand-up too.

Borders, in which he pairs his story of a celebrity photo journalist, who made his name ‘shooting’ Bin Laden, and a courageous female Syrian graffiti artist who chooses to have no name, is an inspired idea and not just because of their contrasting lives and fates. It succeeds also because Naylor knows instinctively that giving the audience liberty to laugh, by turns with star photo journo Sebastian Nightingale for his wry self-deprecating sense of humour, and at him for his increasing posturing before his public, makes us all the more receptive to the plight of ‘Nameless’. Not that she is in any way a figure of pity. She is spiky and self aware, as well as extraordinarily resourceful and courageous.

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Graham O’Mara created the role of Nightingale, while Deniz Arixenas is new to the role of Nameless. Both actors are spot on in realising Naylor’s vivid characters and in delivering his beautifully wrought monologues, which require his cast to take on the personae of friends and enemies, family and colleagues, within these narratives spoken directly to the audience rather than to each other. There is no credit for designer, simply for Vasilis Apostotatos’s atmospheric lighting that points up the performers, who inhabit the space with only a stool each, as they share the narratives that inexorably and shockingly come together at the play’s climax.

Naylor uses a similar strategy that’s equally successful in Games. The games in question are the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Here his protagonists are Helen Mayer – outstanding fencer and, with long blonde plaits coiled around her face, a poster girl for German youth and athleticism – and seemingly superhuman high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who broke every international record for decades. The only problem for Hitler was that both sporting stars were Jewish, so for the Nazis it was essential that they should be discredited, excluded, humiliated and worse. How the two women defied the Nazis and fought back, in Mayer’s case also despite overwhelming personal tragedy (she received a cable with news of her boyfriend’s death in a military training accident as she was about to compete in the 1932 Los Angeles summer Olympics) is Naylor’s gripping matter.

Again there is no set and director Louise Skaaning’s production relies entirely on the pitch-perfect performances by the pair delivering Naylor’s equally pitch-perfect script. Although these are mainly monologues, Naylor does imagine the pair meeting at intervals during the time span covered by the play (in reality they never met); and actors and writer make every meeting count.

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Sophie Shad cuts a defiant, determined figure as Mayer, lithe and fast in her fencing gear and armed with the vital prop of a fencing foil, which she gives every indication of being able to use.

Tessie Orange-Turner makes an equally impressive Bergman, powerful and athletic in her shorts and singlet and admirable in her self-assured defiance. As she explains, she is a mixed-race performer playing a Jew to bring the narratives of prejudice together. Mayer was famously called to account for using the Nazi salute on the podium, but it is made clear here that this is part of the cruelty she suffered, as members of her family were trapped in Germany and suffering persecution at the time.

Naylor uses the idea of the metal visage, the mask of mesh resembling a fly’s compound eye to top and tail the play and there is a real feeling of the courageous journey the two women make against all the odds. He writes especially well for his female characters, both here and in Borders, and the two plays work together as a fine double bill; Borders chiming with Games in examining the predicament of women fighting back against persecution and prejudice. This pairing brilliantly illuminates a warning from history against 21st century prejudice and exclusion.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Rosalind Furlong

Borders/Games runs until Friday 21 December. 7pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Sat). £10-£22 (per play). Arcola Theatre, E8 3DL. 020 7503 1646.

Listen to our interview with playwright Henry Naylor on JR OutLoud.