Sher: We must resist casting Jews as Jews

Antony Sher declares his hatred for the latest politically correct trend in the theatre.

By John Nathan, September 27, 2011
Antony Sher (left) and director Iqbal Kahn during rehearsals for Arthur Miller’s most Jewish play, Broken Glass

Antony Sher (left) and director Iqbal Kahn during rehearsals for Arthur Miller’s most Jewish play, Broken Glass

The adage "it takes one to know one" has been taken to heart by British theatre directors in recent times. Jewish characters are these days cast with Jewish actors. Think of Ryan Craig's The Holy Rosenbergs and Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years at the National Theatre, or Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup With Barley at the Royal Court.

Thankfully, fashion does not extend to directors. Jews are not thought to be better equipped than their gentile counterparts to direct Jewish plays. A fine example is Iqbal Khan, a director from a Pakistani Muslim background, whose production of Arthur Miller's most Jewish play, Broken Glass, has just transferred from the Tricycle Theatre to the West End. It is anchored by a barnstorming performance by, yes, the Jewish Sir Antony Sher as the self-hating Jew Phillip Gellburg. Sher is surely in line for an award for his performance. And so, probably, is Khan.

The opportunity to direct Broken Glass partly came about because of Khan's track record in directing Asian plays. In 2007 he assisted Nicholas Hytner with his National Theatre production of Rafta, Rafta, Ayub Khan-Din's look at Indian family life in Britain. Then came a revival of Khan-Din's comedy, East is East. It is not surprising that the Tricycle's outgoing artistic director Nicolas Kent asked Khan if he knew any great Asian plays. But you feel Khan might have been frustrated by the notion that he was best suited to direct Asian plays. His answer to Kent was tantamount to saying: "No, but I know a great Jewish play".

And that was how Kent said yes to a new production of Miller's last great play.

"For most of my working life I've been excited by the canonical and classical works," says Khan. "Pinter, Shakespeare, Miller… great writing and great parts. That's what gets me going."

Khan's production was first seen at the Tricycle in 2010 but returned with some new actors, including Tara Fitzgerald who plays Gellburg's paralysed wife Sylvia, a woman whose fear for her fellow Jews in Nazi Germany is so potent she loses the use of her legs.

The play is set in Brooklyn in 1938. The papers are full of news of Kristallnacht, when Germans smashed Jewish shops, homes, synagogues and lives. When Miller wrote the play, in 1994, the massacres of the Bosnian war had been revealed. When it opened, Rwanda's genocide was under way. So when Sylvia cries for something to be done, it is not only the victims of the Holocaust she is crying for.

The time I spent trying to deny aspects of myself was an incredible waste of time and energy

But the state of mind with which Miller is at least equally concerned is that of Sylvia's unlikable husband, Gellburg, who always wears a black suit and cannot bear his name to be mistaken for Goldberg. It is a Finnish name, he insists, though he looks as Jewish as chopped liver. Being the first and only Jew to work for his WASP banker boss is a source of great pride for him. This is Miller's self-hating Jew and although there is little to admire about the man, he embodies the author's take on the Jewish condition in a mostly gentile world.

Rehearsals have broken for lunch. Most of the cast have left the room and Khan and Sher have allowed me to join them as they exchange notes.

"At first Gellburg is this really nasty piece of work," says Sher.

"A monster and tyrant," agrees Khan.

"A 'miserable little pisser' as one character calls him," laughs Sher.

Khan always had Sher in mind for the role. He put the idea to him over a drink in Stratford-upon-Avon's favourite hang out for Royal Shakespeare Company actors, the Dirty Duck pub. But Sher's Jewishness was not the main reason why Khan approached him.

"The most important thing about Tony for me is that he is one of the greatest actors of his generation," says Kahn. "It was also incredibly useful that he was Jewish, but it is not his Jewishness that makes him able to play Gellburg. The play is more complex than that. It doesn't just speak to one particular experience. It speaks more broadly than that."

But the notion of the self-hating Jew is a particular Jewish condition, isn't it? Is there, for instance, such a thing as a self-hating Muslim?

"I don't think it's built into the religion. East is East was a very interesting example of a play that has the first generational experience of Islamic Pakistanis coming over here. And I think it showed issues about whether they felt they belonged and of being ashamed perhaps of where they were from. Now it's different. My experience - the second generation experience - was a much more complicated one," says the director who was raised in Birmingham.

"There was a sense of - I don't think 'hating yourself', but it was hard to accept yourself," says Khan. "But no, that Jewish shorthand for talking about a certain kind of mental condition, apologising for yourself, hating yourself, I don't think that's there in Islam in the same way."

It is a condition for which Sher draws on lot of life experience. "All the aspects of my identity were problems for me initially," he says. "I didn't immediately come out as gay; the Jewish thing was an issue because once I'd set my sights on the RSC and classical acting, I couldn't see any examples of great Jewish actors, so I thought I'd better not be Jewish. And I had a big problem with admitting to being a white South African at the height of apartheid. I now look back at the time I spent trying to deny those aspects of myself as an incredible waste of time and energy."

Gellburg wastes a lot of time and energy in denying who he is, and being obsessed by being "the other". It is a state both Khan and Sher know well in their own way. Both have experienced what Khan calls the "narrative of being the other in this profession".

"I think it gives Tony a perspective on his work and on the profession, and I think I have a similar perspective," he says.

"You mean as an outsider?" asks Sher.

"Yes. It gives you a particular insight into the DNA of the play."

Sher nods, then adds: "It's also worth saying that Broken Glass is Miller's most Jewish play. And it's the play with which he himself came out as a Jew. I always thought that Death of a Salesman was about a Jewish family, but Miller said not. He always maintained that he wasn't a Jewish writer. He said: 'I'm a Jew who writes'. But I have a sense that with this play Miller wants to write openly as a Jew. "

Surprisingly, this is the first time that Sher has played Miller. You get the feeling that given a choice of Miller roles, Sher - not so much a Jewish actor, but a Jew who acts - might have opted for Willy Loman over the Phillip Gellburg. He is wary about that fashion for casting Jews in Jewish roles. "There is a non-Jewish actor [Patrick Stewart] playing Shylock at the moment He's a great actor. I'd hate to see Shylock only played by Jews. It needs a great actor…" he says, just stopping short of saying, "not a great Jew."

Sher points out that the rest of Khan's cast are not Jewish and they play Jews very convincingly. He is right. They do. "There is a danger that there is a political correctness thing out there," he says.

"I think that view has been enormously influenced by television," adds Khan, "that you have to cast 'authentically', whatever that means. The wonderful thing about theatre is that you suspend your disbelief within five minutes if the truth that is being communicated to you is a bigger one. What I would concede is that this time it was very important that everyone on stage should feel authentically Jewish to the audience."

The phenomenon of casting Jews in Jewish roles "has to be resisted", insists Sher finally. "Because that PC thing could end up meaning that I can only play a Jewish, white South African - which doesn't mean that I won't play a Jew. I do and I'm happy to."

Broken Glass is at the Vaudeville Theatre until December 10. Tel: 0844 412 4663

Last updated: 11:23am, September 27 2011