As a not very sporty person, I was surprisingly gripped by this contest of runners from a time that seems so very remote. Edward Hall’s much acclaimed production at the tiny Hampstead theatre transferred beautifully to the large Gielgud Theatre, with the running track still part of the amazing set. To Vangelis' haunting sounds, we are faced by a large group of exercising sportsman (a ballet of sport if you like, lots of beefcake, some lithe, but flexible, maidens).
Then the action starts. Within the hallowed Halls of King’s College, Cambridge, we witness all that contributes to the main theme, the Olympic contest between the famous runners Liddel and Abrahams. It's a competition between the great public schools, the world famous colleges, the careless snobbery, and the hurtful stupidity involved, as well as the latent anti-Semitism and rigid, stifling piousness of the Scotland of these years. It is amazing how Hall can set his players in history so clearly in such a short time.
And, of course, the sporty bits help, too. They just loosen us up as well as them!
The runners in the 1924 Olympics, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, whose lives we are getting involved with, seem to be representing two ways of life, not just two running styles. Harold is systematic, driven, needs to win and is Jewish; He seems the more modern one of the two. Eric is the amateurish, a very English ’gentleman’ type of sportsman, yet is a pious Scot who uses his God-given gift for God’s purpose, and winning is for the higher power, not himself. The running styles reflect this beautifully: Harold hones his style, trains with a specialist, and makes running his life. He is determined to win and does all he can to make that possible. Eric’s typically flailing arms are his trademark style, and he preaches a dour, Scottish version of Protestantism on the morning of an important race and will not run on the Sabbath.
Who wins? The jury is out ultimately. 'Harold is faster; Eric is better’ is the play’s conclusion, and we are invited to puzzle out exactly what that means. Is being faster not good enough? What then is better? To win by chance better than by effort?
The legacy of the runners is also interesting to evaluate. Liddel is still much loved in Scotland, even thought he died very young; his foundation is going strong. Abrahams has been recognised as a modernizer in the field of running.
Questions well worth pondering in these times we are reconsidering the ethical base to which we have subscribed after many recent events in our glorious City.