How to make a drama out of an Israeli crisis

Only a brave, brash — or biased — playwright would take on Israel today. But it can be done

By John Nathan, March 19, 2009

Last week, Britain’s most influential political playwright, Sir David Hare, presented Wall — his one-man, 40-minute foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — at London’s Royal Court Theatre. He has been here — and there — before. It was at the Royal Court, in 1998, that Hare performed Via Dolorosa, his earlier monologue about the conflict.

Both productions exercised Jewish theatre-goers considerably, though the principal charge against Via Dolorosa was of arrogance, rather than antisemitism. Imagine, said Hare’s critics, an Israeli writer bringing his wisdom to bear on Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” and writing a play called, say, The Falls Road.

Then, last year, another row erupted when Hare’s play Gethsemane was staged at the National Theatre. The play had no apparent connection to the Middle East — except, that is, in its depiction of a character with uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s fundraiser and Middle East envoy Lord Levy.

This time there were accusations of antisemitism — and a bitterly satirical response from Frederic Raphael in the Jewish Quarterly.

But, while all these storms could arguably fit into a single tea cup, the row surrounding Caryl Churchill’s now-notorious Seven Jewish Children, which preceded Wall at the Royal Court, is of a different magnitude. This, it seemed to me and many others, was an attack upon Jews in general under the guise of criticising Israel. And, on a different London stage, another rapid response to Operation Cast Lead, Go To Gaza, Drink the Sea, ran into similar trouble.

The writing, staging and performing of plays about Israel — and Jews — has never been more contentious, even for such a well-meaning and established playwright as Sir David. So how does a non-Jewish dramatist who might be considering writing a play critical of a country that was established by Jews, populated by Jews, supported by Jews and describes itself as Jewish, possibly avoid accusations of being anti-Jewish?

It’s a tough one. Perhaps the following guide can help:

Don’t mention the Holocaust

Oh, all right, mention it. Jews — including Jewish playwrights — mention it all the time. As the Catholic lawyer in David Mamet’s play, Romance, puts it: “You people can’t order a cheese sandwich without mentioning the Holocaust.”

He is right of course. But, given that 78 per cent of European Jewry was wiped out within living memory, it is going to be a regular topic of conversation among us for a while to come.

Still, Jews don’t have copyright over the Holocaust and attitudes to it are of course legitimate subjects for a writer. But when it comes to dramatising suffering that results from Israel’s actions, it really is best not to make comparisons with the Holocaust. They are bound to end up being monumentally unbalanced and, in consequence, irresponsibly provocative.

Avoid the word “Jew” in the title

This can lead to confusion. If you were angry with the actions of a country whose population happened, let us say, to be black, it would be best to identify that country by its nationality rather than its ethnicity. So if you want to be critical of, say, South Africa or Zimbabwe, it will be advisable not to call your play, Seven Black Children, as non-South African or Zimbabwean black people might get the idea you are talking about them.

Don’t mention the word “Israel”

Just kidding.

Remember: diversity is the key to understanding

It is extremely difficult to write a play entirely populated by, and critical of, one ethnic group without being accused by members of that group of being anti-them. Especially if you are not a member of that group. Which is why Nicholas Hytner has sensibly pledged to never stage a play at the National Theatre that is populated entirely, or even mainly, by Muslims, unless it is written by a Muslim.

So keep your characters and their opinions diverse. Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice is brimful of different voices, attitudes and ethnicities — and is disrespectful to all of them. Hence, he gets away with it. And because David Hare’s Wall — like his Via Dolorosa — contains one man, the playwright, but many voices, Arab and Jewish, he too gets away with it, too.

John Nathan is the JC theatre critic

Last updated: 2:17pm, March 19 2009