John Nathan

Should Roald Dahl’s witches be cancelled?

The National Theatre’s production was hard to watch, especially after October 7


The Witches company at the National Theatre (Photo: Marc Brenner)

December 28, 2023 11:16

After favourably reviewing the National Theatre’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches I was recently taken to task by a JC reader for not making more of the work’s antisemitic associations. These include Dahl himself, of course, who raised the bar in the art of victim blaming when he said that there is “a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity”, and went on to say that “there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason”.

Aside from the author’s views, antisemitism is also specific to The Witches. The women of the title are depicted as a hook-nosed minority with power and influence far beyond what one would expect for such a numerically small demographic. They can pass undetected by society’s blameless majority, who have no idea that a person who seems perfectly pleasant and respectable is actually part of cabal who religiously practise rituals during which heinous acts are plotted. They also delight in murdering children just as the blood libel claims that Jews do.

As if knowing all this the National’s depiction of the Grand High Witch played by Katherine Kingsley is decidedly tall, blonde and Nordic. She is physically the opposite of the way popular culture traditionally imagines Jews, which is more like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, another show whose antisemitic associations have not prevented it being offered as feel-good entertainment to the public.

Currently the seasonal offering at Shakespeare’s Globe is using Poet Laureate Simon Armitage’s updated version of the tale, Hansel and Gretel is not one of the Grimm brothers’ three fairytales to feature a Jew, such as The Jew in the Brambles in which the hero tortures a Jew by making him dance barefoot in a bush of thorns. Yet it still delights in a couple of Germans pushing someone who lives on the margins of society into an oven.

As with Dahl there will be those who see this as reason enough to cancel the Grimm brothers. But what a loss to children — many of them Jews — that would be. To define art by the bigotry or immorality of the artist who created it would result in a pyre of books, paintings and music manuscripts bright enough to light the moon.

So, for my part, the difficulty in reviewing The Witches was not the antisemitism of its creator. The National’s apparent awareness of the issue laid that ghost. It also helps that the show stars young Jewish actor Bertie Caplan, who coincidently also has a bit part in the latest film to feature another Dahl character, Willy Wonka, who in turn is also played by (the slightly more established) Jewish star Timothée Chalamet.

No, the difficulty in reviewing The Witches was in preventing the events that not even Dahl could be blamed for from informing the show (although he was confessedly anti-Israel). Two weeks after the massacre of October 7, a story in which children are not the only victims of violence but are the intended target of adult cruelty informed the production in a way its creators could never have envisaged.

I struggled with the idea of inserting a sort of trigger warning into my review so powerfully did I find the events from real life informed the evening. But I didn’t, partly because I abhor trigger warnings. The whole point of art is that it triggers and anyone who is so psychologically fragile that they cannot watch, read, or listen to it without being damaged or irrevocably wounded should probably not leave the house.

But I also refrained from linking the recent news to Dahl’s fiction because it would be unfair to the show. After all it exists to provide a form of escapism to families many of whom will need to escape the events of October 7.

I still don’t know if that was the right decision. On some level I may also have not wanted to display the extent to which I too have been affected by October 7.

At the beginning of the interval I sat in the aftermath of the applause for this obviously excellent production So too did the reviewer next to me. He would have known that I was writing for the JC. yet what he said came as a surprise, particularly as he is not Jewish.

“The children are Jews, aren’t they,” he said. “I thought it was just me,” I answered. “We can’t say that though,” I said. “No,” he agreed. “We can’t.”

December 28, 2023 11:16

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