Exposed on stage: British Jews' divisions over Israel

Ryan Craig's new play at the National Theatre adds a dramatic perspective to the debate over the role of the diaspora


By John Nathan, March 10, 2011
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Philip Arditti and Susannah Wise in a scene from The Holy Rosenbergs, written by Ryan Craig

Philip Arditti and Susannah Wise in a scene from The Holy Rosenbergs, written by Ryan Craig

In 2006 the brother of British playwright Ryan Craig was getting married in Israel. Hizbollah and the Israel Defence Force were squaring up to each other and Craig was glued to news reports predicting that rockets could begin falling on Israel at any moment. One morning, the phone rang. It was Craig's mother saying she had been up all night worrying. "Me too," said Craig.

"Yes, it's terrible," said his mother, "I don't know who should sit next to who at the wedding."

Craig tells the story during a lunch-break in a National Theatre rehearsal room where his latest play, The Holy Rosenbergs, is being put through its paces.

It is not the first work in which Craig explores Jewishness and the relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel. What We Did to Weinstein featured a British-born, Hendon-raised Israeli soldier; The Glass Room saw a Jewish lawyer defend a Holocaust denier, and Craig's previous work at the National was the English version of Polish writer Tadeusz Slobodzianek's harrowing Holocaust play, Our Class.

Joining Craig around a tray of National Theatre sandwiches are two members of the cast of seven. Henry Goodman and Susannah Wise play father and daughter in the most Jewish play to be seen at the National since Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years in 2006. Also present is director Laurie Sansom.

Everyone around the table laughs at Craig's story. It is a variation on the old Bill Shankly lesson about football - Jewish weddings are not a matter of life and death, they are more important than that. But the story also resonates with Craig's play - not because The Holy Rosenbergs is about a wedding, though a wedding does feature, and not because The Holy Rosenbergs is a comedy, though it promises to be funny in parts, but because both the wedding story and the play reflect the strange relationship that exists between British Jewry and Israel, one which informs the often unremarkable suburban life of many Jews with the kind of profound existential questions which many of their non-Jewish neighbours never have to deal with.

Take Craig's fictional Rosenberg family. They live in Edgware in a modest house, and patriarch David (Henry Goodman) runs a perfectly ordinary catering business. Life should be pretty uncomplicated. But the Rosenbergs are not only caterers, they are Jewish caterers and as such their lives are informed not just by latka recipes and menu designs, but Israel, war, and, of course, that old disease that has proved harder to eradicate than polio - antisemitism.

The play is a window into the Jewish community

In the Rosenbergs' case that relationship between life in the suburbs and life and death is particularly pronounced because one of David's sons is fighting for Israel in Gaza, while his daughter Ruth (Susannah Wise) investigates allegations of Israeli and Hamas war crimes.

And as if David does not have enough to worry about, his treasured status within the Jewish community is under threat because of his daughter's perceived anti-Israel activities. If the community reject him, his business goes under, and so might his family.

If the production gets it right, not only David but all the Rosenbergs should at least be vaguely familiar to many in the audience.

"The play is a window into the Jewish community," observes Goodman. "But it's not about slavish mimicry. It's about representing differences - different people in the community, different opinions, different levels of observance - all within one family."

Scattered around the rehearsal room are some simple props. There is a sofa, a table and a sideboard, on top of which stands a menorah. Designer Jessica Curtis visited an Edgware Jewish home to get the detail right. "Henry and I went to a shul in Edgware," says Craig. "At one point we were asking people about customs, traditions, and the yahrzeit candle…" The memorial candle for the dead will be another prop in the production. "They all completely disagreed."

This is encouraging. If there is no definitive right or wrong when portraying north London Jews on stage, then those who complain that the National's Rosenbergs make unconvincing Edgware Jews - and there will be those who complain - are themselves likely to be accused of getting it wrong by Jews who think they know better. It is the old argument - put 300 Jews in a room (the number of seats in the Cottesloe theatre, though of course not all will be Jews) and you get 400 opinions.

But with all that effort to portray Jews convincingly, is there a danger that the play will lapse into cliché?

"Well, it's something we try and avoid," says Craig, bristling slightly at the impertinence of the question.

"I think it might have been a concern," chimes in director Laurie Sansom. "But Ryan's script has definitely avoided cliché. It would be very difficult to slip into it.

"And the only time it does," adds Wise, who plays the fiercely opinionated daughter of Henry Goodman's character, "I comment on how clichéd it is."

Wise is talking about how her character's attempts to save visitors to the house from being force fed with food the moment they step through the front door.

Director Sansom - best known for an acclaimed revival and pairing of two plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill - is not Jewish. Raised by born-again Christian parents, he admits to being unfamiliar with the milieu of Jewish north-west London. "But when I read the play I understood the family, and the class," he says.

One thing the play revealed about Jews to Sansom, was the culture of discussion and argument. "I find that Talmudic tradition very powerful," adds Craig.

There are arguments aired in the play that may be challenging to those who usually take up defensive or critical positions on Israel.

"It's so much more powerful to hear a well-argued case for what you don't instinctively believe in," says Sansom.

For Craig, it is a play written from a Jewish perspective - a play with politics, rather than a political play that promotes a particular view.

"It's set in the home of a Jewish family," he says. "Five of the characters are Jewish and none of them agree, which is my experience of Jews."

'The Holy Rosenbergs' is at the National Theatre, London SE1 until June 24. Tel: 020 7452 3000

Last updated: 10:42am, March 10 2011