US backlash as Churchill play is staged

By Nathan Guttman, April 2, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter

The US debut of Seven Jewish Children arrived to mild controversy — and two new plays written in response.

Performed at the Washington DC Jewish Community Centre’s Theatre J, Caryl Churchill’s play was accompanied by two short theatrical responses and an open discussion.

A small group of protestors reminded the audience of the stormy reaction to the play when it was first presented — in the aftermath of the Israeli military assault on Gaza earlier this year.

But inside the theatre, the audience — while not all pleased with the play — adhered to a civilised debate, described by the Washington Post critic as “entirely exhilarating”.

Ari Roth, Theatre J’s artistic director, stressed that the reading of the play, coupled with the pro-Israel responses, was meant to open a discussion, not to end one.

“The play is both subtle and outspoken. It can be interpreted, we imagine, in many different ways. We come to it in the spirit of inquiry.”

Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza was first performed in London in February by the Royal Court Theatre. It is structured as a series of instructions on talking to children about Israel. “Tell her we’re entitled. Tell her they don’t understand anything but violence,” the play reads. The JC’s theatre critic called it “antisemitic”.

Mr Roth stumbled into an online debate with leading Jewish commentator Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic, who argued strongly against bringing Seven Jewish Children to the Washington stage.

“You’re ‘investigating’ it, you see its ‘pernicious qualities’, but, in fact, you’re giving it oxygen and you’re giving it the imprimatur of a Jewish theatre company.”

The two responses, Seven Palestinian Children by Deb Margolin and The Eighth Child by Robbie Gringras, mimicked Churchill’s structure and rhythm.

In The Eighth Child, Mr Gringras makes a direct reference to Ms Churchill’s play: “Tell her that those who don’t like us will always pretend to understand us.”

Seven Other Children, the UK’s theatrical response to Ms Churchill’s piece, will be performed at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, north west London, for two weeks from May 5.

Actor Richard Stirling said he wrote the eight-minute play because he was “perturbed” by the Royal Court’s decision to show the original without a two-sided, on-stage debate.

    Last updated: 4:30pm, April 2 2009