In the past fortnight, I have had more interaction with the Metropolitan Police than ever before in my life. First came a face-to-face interview lasting two-and-a-half-hours, then follow-up calls. Even more interviews are to come. What is the reason for all this? To put it bluntly: success.
For those of you who regularly read this column, you will be aware that I have co-created a stage version of Shakespeare’s difficult play The Merchant of Venice.
In my version, called The Merchant of Venice 1936, I play the vilified Jewish moneylender, who demands a pound of flesh from the aristocratic merchant Antonio, who reneges on a payment for a loan.
My Shylock is female, a world first for a full-scale production, and is based on my Belarusian immigrant great-grandmother. Set against the backdrop of Oswald Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, my production ends by re-enacting an East End moment of unity. Londoners of all backgrounds — Irish, Afro-Caribbean, English working class, dockers and trade unionists — all stand with the Jewish community, linking arms, building barricades, chanting “they shall not pass” in the faces of the marching Blackshirts.
Audiences are on their feet almost every night, and some come back three or four times to watch the production. The reviews have been overwhelming, even from Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite newspaper, the Morning Star, which gave us five stars (that pleased me enormously). It’s been called the most important Shakespeare production of 2023. I’m flooded with gratitude and pride.
When I first started working on the project in 2018 for an initial four-week run, I had no idea that this little production would still be running a year later. That’s the least of it. The play has sold out a 13-week national tour and been invited by the Royal Shakespeare Company to have two residencies at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where, due to popular demand, it has been standing room only.
Next week, when we finish here in Warwickshire, my brilliant cast and I will move to the West End, to the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly.
To get a West End transfer these days is nigh-on impossible.
For a little play, a Shakespeare production — and one led by a woman — to be given this prestigious treatment really is quite a thing.
It is the love of the audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and the commitment of our wonderful producers that has pushed it to this point. With the success, of course, has come its message of unity and an awareness of what antisemitism looks like.
Any woman in the public eye is open to abuse. This is a sad fact of life. And no one expected the woman from EastEnders and Doctor Who to speak out on bullying, misogyny and especially antisemitism, particularly on the progressive left, as I have done over these last few years. Courage calls to courage everywhere. This has won me a huge number of allies from all walks of life, all political creeds, and all colours and religions. But it has also attracted a huge amount of online abuse from people who “don’t have an antisemitic bone in their body”.
Ironically, the success of The Merchant of Venice 1936 has thrust me further into the public arena, even more than when I killed Dirty Den in front of 17 million BBC1 viewers.
Being a well-known and outspoken Jewish woman has, since October 7, brought a whole other level of abuse. Concerted, well-organised, targeted online intimidation has spilled into real life.
Much like my female Shylock, who won’t shut up and quietly drop her case, I have found that speaking out about the horrific rape and murder of Israeli and Jewish women has provoked people in real life to tell me to just “shut the f*** up and go away”. Few Jewish women are out on the front lines talking about this subject, but those of us who do are sharing the same experience. Rachel Riley, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Gwynneth Paltrow, Mayim Bialik, Debra Messing: We have all been resolute in the message that rape is not an act of resistance.
We have all faced the same intimidation, the same online attempts at cancellation, the same physical threats, the same coercive verbal violence and harassment.
What has really shocked me — and I am pretty hardened now to this sort of thing — is the sheer scale of abuse since October 7.
I have never experienced anything so blatantly anti-Jewish before, and from the strangest of sources.
Women’s groups, showbiz “feminists”, nice mums and interior designers, all lovely progressive types, seem to have been completely radicalised by Instagram and TikTok and have taken to spewing out hate.
The tropes, the untruths and the brutality of the hatred is unrelenting.
But Jewish women don’t frighten easily. If we don’t stand up for ourselves and our community, who will? We must remind the mainstream that if you can’t feel empathy for Israeli and Jewish women, if you deny their rapes and their murders, if you deny the reality of the facts of October 7, then denials of all other sexual violence against all other victims will surely follow.
The police officers who came to see me told me that they were new to this Jew hatred. They were shocked at what they were confronting. I hope that Met Commissioner Mark Rowley continues to take what is happening to Jewish women like me seriously. Rape denial, intimidation and bullying intended to silence people on the basis of their race and ethnicity is frightening.