How the theatre is embracing my proud Jewish identity

When I landed a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1990s, I was told to keep my heritage a secret


2H8WDAT l-r: Angela Vale (Meg O'Malley), Emily Raymond (Meriel), Tracy-Ann Oberman (Joan Cope) in A JOVIAL CREW by Richard Brome at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England 21/04/1992 in a new version by Stephen Jeffreys design: Fotini Dimou lighting: Wayne Dowdeswell director: Max Stafford-Clark

September 28, 2023 11:53

When I told my dear departed father that I wanted to be an actress (yes, I’m reclaiming that word), his exact response was — and I remember this as if it was yesterday — “Are you sure? It’s not really a job for a Jewish girl, you’ll be living in a bedsit for the rest of your life with only a cat for company.” Every day that I’m not doing this I feel like I’m winning at life.

To my relief, and his, only a few weeks out of drama school, I landed a two-year contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In those days, the RSC was the single most esteemed theatre company in the world and a troupe of actors and directors was carefully put together to form a cohesive group that would put on the entire season’s plays.

Newcomers such as myself, and future stars such as Sophie Okonedo and Emily Watson, worked alongside the RSC greats such as Antony Sher, Derek Jacobi and Claire Benedict. It was a very exciting time, and a year really was a year; I don’t think I got back from Stratford-upon-Avon to north London for the entire 12 months.

As a Jewish girl brought up traditionally, with a strong sense of identity, living the life of a Shakespearean actress in the most Anglican of surroundings was a challenge.

Shakespeare was the only religion. I remember overhearing an American tourist asking where Shakespeare’s “manger” was. She meant his birthplace.

It was the first time I had been anywhere they didn’t have a local shul. Even when I studied at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1991, I felt a sense of Jewish connection in the air. While communism may have shut down all forms of religious identity, being Jewish there had history.

However, in Stratford-upon-Avon, I felt a bit of an alien. Tony Sher and I were the only openly Jewish people in the building, so far as I could tell. An agent warned me: “Don’t let them know you’re Jewish. It might affect your casting.”

To my surprise, I missed the large family Shabbat dinners, the heated political debates, the chicken soup, the challah. The broigeses forgotten by dessert. Come Rosh Hashanah, amid the sonnets and iambic pentameters, I longed for a bit of tradition, to be among some Jews and hear a shofar blown.

I tentatively asked the company manager if I could have half a day off to go to a service in Birmingham, where I had found a synagogue. He looked at me as though I was mad. No, of course not.

It reminded me of my first day at drama school, when I asked the principal if I could have the next day off for Yom Kippur. “Are you Jewish or are you an actress?” he asked.

“Er, both?” I replied.

“Not possible,” came his response.

Thirty years later, I am back here at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, performing in The Merchant of Venice 1936. Every part of this production has my DNA running through it.

Everything has come full circle. Here I am, a female Shylock standing on stage every night, opening the play by lighting Shabbat candles, blessing the audience with the Hebrew prayer.

Later on, my Shylock lights a yahrzeit candle to her departed husband, reciting the Oseh Shalom.

At the end of Act I, standing in front of the fictitious Cable Street Synagogue (which represents all of the 1930s East End shuls), the Kol Nidre prayer has been sung by the chazan, while my Shylock delivers the most beautiful piece of writing for tolerance, “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

Act II sees the shofar being blown loud and clear, which our brilliant composer Erran Baron Cohen then merges into the ships’ horns of the East End docks.

I’ve brought our Jewish traditions, what makes me who I am, to the stage here in Stratford. Shylock is a living, breathing, recognisable Jewish woman with a community behind her. I am no longer that out-of-place girl who doesn’t quite know where she fits in.

I have merged my art, my creativity, and my cultural and religious identity into a cohesive whole. The best bit of all is that the audiences at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the RSC, have taken our production to their hearts.

We are sold out every night, receiving standing ovations, cheers and tears. So much so, in fact, that we have been invited back in January for another three weeks. I have, as the Californians say, achieved closure.

I am in awe of how over the past 30 years, the RSC has evolved to embrace diversity in its company of actors, its creatives and its storytelling, reflecting, I hope, how the country has changed.

Once I was that girl at the start of her acting journey who needed to look outside of her profession for a little bit of Jewish tradition to ground her. Now I’ve managed to bring that tradition from my heart to ground me on stage.

September 28, 2023 11:53

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