New End Theatre, London NW3
Actor and playwright Richard Stirling’s 10-minute theatrical response holds up a mirror to the 10-minutes of Caryl Churchill’s now famous, some would say infamous, Seven Jewish Children.
Stirling’s play, directed by Simone Vause, reflects much of the structure, speech patterns and rhythms of the piece that caused so much controversy when it was staged by the Royal Court in London in February (I myself regarded Seven Jewish Children as antisemitic). And, like any reflective surface, it gives a reversed image of the original.
As with Churchill’s play at the Royal Court, this work is performed by nine actors and each scene is set within a period of modern history. But whereas the original begins with the Holocaust and ends with Israel’s attack on Gaza last year, Stirling’s timespan is between 1947 and the present day.
The perspective, however, is Palestinian, not Jewish. This time it is Palestinian adults who thrash out what version of the truth about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should be revealed to an unseen child.
And this time, the child is a Palestinian “him” rather than a Jewish “her”. As a result, the repeated refrain is “Ask him…” as opposed to Churchill’s “Tell her…”
Stirling, who is not Jewish, has said that the focus of his riposte to Churchill’s work is the “distorted education of many Palestinians about Israel, Israelis and Jews”.
“Ask him if he understands the Naqba” (the Arab word for the “disaster” of Israel’s establishment), says one adult in his play. “Ask him what they do with children’s blood,” asks another.
Where education becomes propaganda and where propaganda becomes a downright lie is a worthy subject for any drama about the Middle East. And I understand Stirling’s motivation to respond to Churchill with a play in kind.
But the danger of holding a mirror up to a work whose content you find offensive, is that you end up replicating distortions rather than opposing them.
And if one of my complaints about Churchill’s play was that the playwright, a non-Jew, implicated all Jews in her criticism of Israel, then the same point must surely apply to Stirling, a non-Palestinian whose play, it would appear, represents the attitudes of all Palestinians, even though Palestinians are conspicuously absent from his title.
One member of the audience suggested to me that the two pieces should be staged together, which might raise the level of the debate. But it appears that debate is not the Royal Court’s priority.
Before Stirling’s piece was performed, the cast read out his letter of complaint about Churchill’s play sent to the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke. But permission to read Cooke’s reply has been withheld by the Royal Court, with a threat that it would sue.
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