Review: Seven Jewish Children

By John Nathan, February 12, 2009

Not just a theatre event, a political event, said Caryl Churchill of her 10-minute play. So this review should deal first with the play, then the politics.

As you’d expect from the Royal Court’s most revered living playwright, Seven Jewish Children — which Churchill wrote as a rushed response to Israel’s attack on Gaza — is an impressively distilled piece of writing. Its powerful premise is built upon the parental instinct to protect children from frightening realities.

Each of Churchill’s seven short scenes is set within a period of modern Jewish history — from pre-Holocaust Europe to post-Gaza Israel — and sees Jewish adults discussing what version of the truth should be revealed to an unseen Jewish child.

Nearly every line of dialogue — spoken in Dominic Cooke’s production by a cast of nine — begins with either “Tell her...” or “Don’t tell her…”. “Tell her it’s a game”, says one guardian in a scene implying that the child must hide from Nazis; “Don’t tell her they were killed”, says another, in the second scene, suggesting the care with which Jewish children were told about the Holocaust.

And so the play moves on to the post-war settlement of European Jews in Palestine — “Tell her it’s the land God gave us” — the implied expulsion of Arabs — “Tell her this wasn’t their home” — to war, the Intifada and to the killing of Palestinian babies in Gaza, by which time Churchill’s Jews are no longer victims but perpetrators of atrocity, who no longer protect their children from truths but conspire to distort them.

In dramatic terms, there is no doubting the power of Churchill’s message.

But this is one of those occasions when the merits of a play are eclipsed by its politics.

The unavoidable question is: are the politics antisemitic?

The problem here is that a gentile author is portraying not just her own views and attitudes but those of Jews. “Tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen”, says one, glorying in Palestinian suffering.

Does the Court’s artistic director, Dominic Cooke, not realise that a play that is critical of, and entirely populated by, characters from one community, can be defended only if it is written by a member of that community? This is the wise rule of thumb by which Nicholas Hytner has judged that a play that is critical of, and populated by, Muslims, can only be staged at the National Theatre if it is written by a Muslim.

As if sensing this, Cooke has recruited Jews for his cast. Not, it appears, to bring Jewish insight to their roles but to provide crude cover against criticism. It won’t work. For the first time in my career as a critic, I am moved to say about a work at a major production house that this is an antisemitic play.

Last updated: 6:06pm, February 12 2009