Hare play is fair play, says theatre boss Hytner

Stanley Townsend (right) as Ivan Fallon in Gethsemane, with Daniel Ryan as Mike Drysdale

Stanley Townsend (right) as Ivan Fallon in Gethsemane, with Daniel Ryan as Mike Drysdale

The director of the National Theatre has defended a play which a leading rabbi has claimed "depicts Jews in a vile manner".

Nicholas Hytner said that while he had no regrets about producing the play Gethsemane, by Sir David Hare, "I regret the response, because I'm director of the National Theatre and I'm Jewish.

"It does concern me that there have been several reactions from non-Jewish journalists accusing the play and the performance of antisemitism, because I don't detect it. I don't see it.

"When I say I'm Jewish, I take it seriously. It's important to me and I'm proud of it. So I regret the response [to the play] but I can't say I regret producing it because it's not just a legitimate play, I think it's a good play."

Gethsemane, based on recent political events, is at the centre of controversy over its central character, Otto Fallon, played by Stanley Townsend.

A number of theatre critics have noted that the character is played as overtly Jewish and, despite the author's denial, have drawn parallels with Lord Levy, the Labour Party's chief fundraiser and special Middle East envoy under Tony Blair.

Nicholas de Jongh in the London Evening Standard described the character in his original review as "a slightly distasteful, antisemitic stereotype of Hare's invention". The words "antisemitic stereotype" were removed after the National complained that the play never refers to the character as Jewish.In an interview with The Independent on Monday, Mill Hill United Synagogue's Rabbi Yitzhak Schochet - who has not seen the play - said: "The character is portrayed with all the stereotypes associated with Jews in terms of his association with money and everything else.

"That's certainly the way a number of Jews and non-Jews have walked away from this play. If there is truth in the way the portrayal is being conveyed to me, then obviously I would question the sensitivities, the mindset, of those who see that but are still entertained. It's the portrayal of a figure very much like Fagin, but worse."

Rabbi Schochet said this week that a number of people had voiced their concerns to him. He told an audience in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, on Saturday evening during a speech on Kristallnacht: "Sad as it is that a play can get away with this in 2008, it is even more disturbing that an audience can be entertained by it. It reflects an antisemitic undercurrent that is every bit as alive today as it was 70 years ago."

Mr Hytner took issue with Rabbi Schochet's "Fagin" comment, saying: "From a theatre point of view [the character of] Fallon is the one you want to spend time with and you're always glad when he is on stage, which is why ‘worse than Fagin' is so ridiculously wide of the mark."

Mr Hytner said the play was not concerned about Jewishness and that it had never been discussed. He pointed out that Sir David's wife, Nicole Farhi, was Jewish and that Sir David had been given an honorary doctorate by Tel Aviv University.

He continued: "I kept thinking what was the alternative, do I say to David Hare, ‘We can't put this play on in case anyone thinks Otto Fallon is Jewish'. The play is not interested in this person's Jewishness. So I do think those who identify Otto Fallon as significantly Jewish have to tell us why. I am concerned because if I had identified that performance or that character as specifically Jewish I would have done something about it."

Sir David Hare declined to comment as did Lord Levy, except to confirm that he had not seen the play.

Comment - John Nathan, JC Theatre Critic

Complaints that Stanley Townsend's performance as Otto Fallon is antisemitic are unfair and, I believe, wrong. I also think anyone who says Hare is antisemitic is a fool. But all this is to miss the point.

Despite the denials, there is little doubt that Fallon is mostly inspired by Lord Levy. Fallon made his money in pop music, played squash (ok, not tennis) with the Prime Minister and was, crucially, the Labour Party's fundraiser.

As for Fallon's Jewishness, there are references which leave most people with the impression that Fallon - an ex-Hendon-hairdresser who lives in Bishop's Avenue, Hampstead - is at least Jew-ish.

But if a political playwright is inspired by real life, real people have to be reflected in their characters. But they have to be aware of sensitivities: in this case, the link of money and Jew and how Lord Levy's Jewishness (he was dubbed Lord Cashpoint in the press) was referred to in articles about his fundraising, and the openly discussed issue of antisemitism in the coverage of the Cash for Honours enquiry.

All of which seems to have been only belatedly grasped by Hare, director Howard Davies and Nicholas Hytner.

Even more strangely, the National were quick to correct the Evening Standard when its review referred to Fallon as being Jewish. Yet before the play opened, they said nothing in response to the many articles that described Fallon as Jewish. Which begs the question, why? And the possible answer, that Otto Fallon used to be Jewish.

Last updated: 12:42pm, November 20 2008