John Nathan

Jewish conspiracy theories are well-represented on London stages

Two new productions have raised Jewish eyebrows

January 13, 2023 13:07

There is a rule of thumb in journalism that you need three of something to write about a trend. However, two can be enough to raise an eyebrow, which is why one of mine will be brow-bound when two celebrated productions transfer to the West End in the coming months.

The pervasive conspiracy that Jews are controlling the world will be well represented on London stages this year with the return of two plays that some Jewish theatregoers might find objectionable.

The first of these productions is Sam Mendes’s production of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy which returns in January. First seen in 2018, its focus is Jewish migration and the family whose eponymous bank is said to have triggered the financial crash of 2008 when it went under.

The second show is also an epic inspired by real events. Patriots, which transfers in May, is written by reality drama specialist Peter Morgan (best known for The Crown) but also responsible for such gripping fly on the wall storytelling as The Deal and Frost/Nixon.

The Jew in Patriots is the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky (played by Tom Hollander) who died somewhat mysteriously in the UK after he fell out of favour with the Kremlin. The other Jew is Abramovich (Luke Thallon) whose Jewishness is not as conspicuous as Berezovsky’s. This may be because he is less pivotal. 

According to Morgan’s play, Putin would never have become president of Russia without Berezovsky. If that’s true we may extrapolate that Ukraine may never have been invaded, thousands would not have died and (least of all) I would not be writing this swaddled in layers of a knitwear next to an open fire as part of our Dickensian attempt to keep heating bills down.

No one is blaming Berezovsky for this litany in the play or outside it, but for those looking for Jewish hands behind the world’s ills from Ye’s full fontal attack to the massively active Q-Anon lot in America and now Germany - the notion of the controlling Jew is reassuringly asserted.

In Patriots, religious festivals come and go but if memory serves only the play’s Jews acknowledge them. This is, one assumes, intended to remind audiences that the central protagonist is a Jew. As were the Lehman brothers, big time. To illustrate this, founder Henry (played by the always excellent Simon Russell Beale in the original production) says “Baruch Hashem” a lot.

But what’s a theatremaker to do? You can’t ignore a character’s identity because some nutters on the fringe might use it to bolster their antisemitic conspiracy theories. True enough. Except that the nutters are no longer on the fringe. Vile and viral libels about Jews and money abound.

True in Patriots there is a Jewish mentor of the oligarch who has no interest in Berezovsky’s political and money-making ambitions. But then the Jew Tubal has no interest in Shylock’s objectives and that hasn’t stopped the cutting a pound of flesh being seen as a typically Jewish thing to do. In the Almeida’s production, Patrick Stewart’s Shylock placed a kippah on his head to sharpen his knife.

I’m not calling for a ban and never would. But times are changing and productions have to change with them lest they add to a harmful false narrative about minorities.

Many shows are adjusted to reflect the times in which they are revived. In New York the producers of Chicago have changed the way they audition the character of Little Miss Sunshine who on singing the line “things are not always as they appear to be” whips off her wig to reveal she is a man. Historically played by a male soprano the character is now offered to performers of “any gender identity.” 

In Hamilton, the opening number of the second act What’d I Miss was adjusted to give more agency to the enslaved woman who bore many children to Thomas Jefferson.   Elsewhere references with racial overtones in The Lion King have been removed and Bartlett Sher adjusted his adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird so that Tom Robinson, the falsely accused black man defended by Atticus Finch is present at the end of the play, highlighting the black story that underpins the classic’s white hero.

The Lehman Trilogy too has seen changes in response to criticisms that the bankers’ connections to slavery were too muted in the show. All these productions were adjusted to avoid perpetuating prejudice of one kind or another. It remains to be seen how and whether The Lehman Trilogy and Patriots will be too.

January 13, 2023 13:07

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