Royal Court Theatre, London – until 22 October 2022
What is the Royal Court theatre for? Is it a space that stages innovative new writing, or does it prefer to do documentary theatre? Is it concerned with reaching out beyond its regular audiences, or is it more focused on its own internal problems? In November 2021, it made an appalling blunder by allowing an antisemitic stereotype — a money-grubbing billionaire called Hershel Fink in Al Smith’s Rare Earth Mettle — to get through the rehearsal process despite protests from several members of the company. Eventually the character was renamed, and you’d think that the venue would forget about the matter. Let it drop. Do better next time. But no.
In fact, the first character to appear in Jews. In Their Own Words, a new verbatim play by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland from an idea by actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, is the very same Hershel Fink. Talk about self-flagellation. This time, however, the show is all about calling out stereotypes, especially in the context of “enlightened progressive institutions”, such as the Royal Court and lefty circles more generally. Freedland has interviewed 12 Jewish people as a way of illustrating the nasty hold that antisemitism still exerts over many in British society today. It’s a kind of stage version of comedian and writer David Baddiel’s excellent Jews Don’t Count.
Although anyone who didn’t know about Rare Earth Mettle might be puzzled by the opening prologue, the main event is of depressingly wider relevance. Interviewees include Oberman, Labour politicians Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger, novelist Howard Jacobson, journalist Stephen Bush, Union of Jewish Students ex-president Hannah Rose, as well as less high-profile figures such as social worker Victoria Hart, paediatrician Tammy Rothenberg, decorator Phillip Abrahams, Baghdad-born Edwin Shuker, and Talmudist Joshua Bitensky. Dave Rich, policy director at the Community Security Trust, which combats antisemitism, acts as the piece’s narrator.
With help from the other interviewees, Rich talks us through episodes of antisemitic tropes and stereotypes, such as Jews being rich and stingy, or conspiratorial string-pullers of those in power. Using masks and puppets to illustrate reminders of the historical past of prejudice in this country and in Eastern Europe, there are episodes which highlight attacks on Jews in York in 1190 or in Lincoln in 1255, prompting discussion of the image of Jews as greedy moneybags or vicious child murderers (the blood libel). Some of the material is personal — such as when Bush talks about his mixed race heritage or Jacobson about being bullied at school — and some more general. Although renaissance depictions of the Last Supper show, according to Jacobson, Judas as a “treacherous, betraying, money-mad Jew”, surely all the early Christians, including Jesus, were Jewish?
Often it is specific incidents and experiences that are the most interesting: Abrahams tipping his Uber driver generously to avoid being seen as a stereotypical mean Jew — he feels a responsibility to “break this prejudice”. During the pandemic, he goes to a local convenience store and discovers that a Turkish man working there is convinced that coronavirus is a Jewish plot to eliminate Muslims. Equally crazy, but equally persistent, are other fantasies about world domination. Free masons, huge conspiracies. Not surprisingly, given the experiences of some of the interviewees, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is lambasted, and so is Ken Livingstone, one-time London mayor. Caryl Churchill’s Royal Court play, Seven Jewish Children, is roundly condemned. Naturally, Shylock and Fagin appear as central figures of hate.
More unusually, Shuker goes to Blackburn to meet the Muslim community and appeals to them by his knowledge of the Qur’an and his style, which is “very, very Fiddler on the Roof, where I show weakness and strength at the same time”. The result is that he is embraced, embarrassingly, as an anti-Zionist. Discussion about how criticism of the state of Israel and its actions in the West Bank after the Six-Day War in 1967 can often shade into antisemitism is sadly predictable and the intensity of anti-Jewish messages on twitter and social media is disgusting and horrifying. Happily, there are some moments of humour: Hodge tells a good joke about Corbyn, and the company perform “The Jews Did It”, a satirical song and dance.
Like all verbatim theatre, Jews. In Their Own Words is mostly a fine piece of editing, which powerfully explores the roots and persistence of antisemitism. For me, it was most successful in its small moments of imaginative sharpness, and in its most personal moments, than in its rather familiar crossing of the already well known. Many episodes were rarther inert, with interviewees just sitting around a table. But the toll that constant prejudice takes on people, the hideous effects of social media and the revolting persistence of medieval thinking come across strongly. There’s a lot of resilience as well as sadness in the show, although I’m not sure that all of it speaks to people outside the comparatively small circle of theatre and Labour Party progressives.
For while this “theatrical inquiry” works as a public apology by the venue, it also has its limitations. The most serious is that it seems to give the impression that it is in competition with other racisms, and in fact the inclusion of the term “oppression Olympics” suggests that Freedland is well aware of this. Another limitation is that much of the historical, literary and cultural material is well-known, so its repetition here can only be illuminating for those too ignorant to want to see it anyway. Finally, the piece’s title holds out the promise that we will hear a lot of stuff about how Jews really feel about themselves, maybe much that is positive, when in fact a lot of the evening is spent in attacking what other people say about Jews. Too much of the piece is Jews — in other people’s words.
That said, Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield’s 100-minute production, which is designed by Georgia de Grey, is smoothly watchable, and has a cast led by Alex Waldmann (Rich), with other actors mostly doubling up: Debbie Chazen (Hodge and Rothenberg), Louisa Clein (Oberman and Berger), Steve Furst (Jacobson and Abrahams), Hemi Yeroham (Shuker and Bitensky), and Rachel-Leah Hosker (Hart and Rose). Billy Ashcroft plays Stephen Bush. If you accept the documentary verbatim style, and don’t mind the lack of any real drama, this is an intelligently crafted and committed piece of political theatre that tackles an issue too often swept under the carpet. But I’d love to see a proper play about the subject.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk
Jews. In Their Own Words is at the Royal Court until 22 October.
The post Jews. In Their Own Words, Royal Court appeared first on Aleks Sierz.