Borders/Games double bill, Arcola Theatre – Review

L-R: Deniz Arixenas and Graham O’Mara

Plays that show a number of perspectives are generally more nuanced, thought-provoking and naturally entertaining. With this in mind, the double bill of plays by Henry Naylor at Arcola Theatre does this in spades. Directed by Louise Skaaning with Michael Cabot, Borders and Games broach the subjects of personal responsibility and using one’s abilities to the fullest.

In Borders, two people use their respective ‘artistic’ talents to disseminate ‘the truth’. Why they ‘should’ do this becomes an important part of their respective character arcs. Sebastian Nightingale (Graham O’Mara) is a young British man who wants to make a living as a photojournalist. A chance meeting in 1998 with John Messenger – a respected foreign correspondent – leads to a life-changing assignment with a ‘warlord’: Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile in Syria, a young woman (Deniz Arixenas) who goes by the nomenclature of ‘Nameless’ finds her calling as a ‘graffiti artist’ – not to spray her ‘name tags’ everywhere, but to challnge and criticise the Assad regime who are responsible for the death of her father.


© Steve Ullathorne

But while ‘Nameless’ continues to ‘push the envelope’ of where to publicly challenge the status quo, and finds relationships ‘unnecessary’ amd ‘messy’, Nightingale get married and ‘sells out’ – foregoing meaningful assignments for chronicling celebrities. At polar ends of the spectrum, neither person is ‘whole’. Will their paths ever converge and complement what’s missing respectively?

O’Mara as Nightingale is in top form and while one may not completely agree with the character’s point of view, we understand his rationale and why he’s resistant to the notion that he’s ‘wasting his life’. Arixenas’ ‘Nameless’ avoids stereotypes – often secular in her thinking and driven. However, like Nightingale, she chooses not to reflect on what she really feels, as ‘duty’ and ‘happiness’ seem incompatible…

L-R: Sophie Shad and Tessie Orange-Turner

In Games, a forgotten chapter of sporting history is revisited that has a special resonance to today’s world. During the early days of Hitler’s rise to power, there’s one athlete who the Nazis appropriate as the Aryan ideal – Helene Mayer (Sophie Shad). More accomplished than other female fencers (as well as her male peers) Mayer seems to be untouchable. But then word gets out that father is Jewish and her stock with the Reich plummets. Meanwhile, Gretel Bergmann (Tessie Orange-Turner) is an up-and-coming athlete who is adept at everything. She’s also of Jewish descent, but beyond that, her experiences and convictions bear little resemblance to her ‘hero’… As their fortunes rise and fall, we alternate between the two narratives.

sophie-shad-in-games-by-henry- - resize
© Lidia Crisafulli

In a world where politics limits what they can do because of their cultural identity, their responses couldn’t be more different. As a woman who can pass for someone of ‘pure German blood’, Mayer’s thoughts and motives are ‘complicated’… Like Bergmann, Mayer likes the fact that sport in its purest form is free from ideology and that a person’s ‘worth’ is dependent only on their will and ability to compete. Knowing how politicised her potential presence in the Olympics would be, Mayer thinks (or perhaps more aptly ‘hopes’) that because her dual heritage is public knowledge, her ‘sporting prowess’ will speak for itself. Besides, she doesn’t think of herself as Jewish – more of a label that’s an inconvenience…

© Steve Ullathorne

Bergmann doesn’t have the luxury of ‘not being Jewish’, but the more obstacles that are placed to stop her competing, the more she finds ‘the community’ rallies behind her to lend their support. While one of these women is the preferred choice by the State to represent Hitler’s Germany, the other is arguably competing for the ‘right’ reasons – not for personal glory, but to refute through her achievements Hitler’s assertion about Jews being ‘subhuman’ – if she gets the chance…

In more recent times – such as in apartheid-era South Africa – the decision to compete or perform in a country that has a questionable political regime is a valid question to raise. The play obliquely suggests that everything we do is politcal – what we choose to do and what we don’t…

© Michael Davis 2018

Four-and-a-half stars

Borders and Games runs at Arcola Theatre until 22nd December.

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