Keren David

Sometimes, theatre can get Jewishness right

It is fabulous to see your own community on stage, but toe-curling when it hits a bum note

August 19, 2022 11:57

So there I was last week, in the theatre, watching actors performing as Jews on stage. Twice. In the space of three days, double the number of times I’ve been to the theatre in the whole of the last two years. I’m still a little heady with the excitement of it all.

The first performance was Patriots at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, Peter Morgan’s incredibly timely play about Putin’s rise to power and his relationships with the Jewish oligarchs, the late Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovitch.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling a certain discomfort at watching a play about Jews and money and power (and politics and Russia and mathematics) in an area adjacent to the constituency represented by you-know-who. And yes, there was a bit of context there, a clear indication of antisemitism in the Russian system. Berezovsky did appear to be motivated by a wish for Russians to have more freedom — as well as his own fortune. Abramovitch did build schools in the far-off province that Putin gave him to rule.

But was there enough to balance the stereotypes, alongside all the Jewish mother jokes, the unconvincing “l’shana tova” as two secular Jews mark the Gregorian new year? I wasn’t sure — and that’s partly because Berezovsky and Abramovitch are characters who are (were) larger than life and yet curiously opaque.

It felt as though Peter Morgan had a lot of fascinating material (much of which was regurgitated as exposition) and yet the inner oligarchs — and their Jewishness — remained stubbornly elusive. I wasn’t quite sure what the non-Jewish audience would make of the Jews/power/money aspect, and as we walked away from the theatre with our non-Jewish friends, I didn’t like to ask.

But this lingering disquiet was well and truly put aside two days later, at the Kiln Theatre, when I was lucky enough to secure a ticket for An Evening of New Jewish Writing, put on by two far-sighted drama graduates Dan Wolff and Sam Thorpe-Spinks.

Seven short plays, written, acted and directed by Jewish creatives, followed by a Q& A session with some of those involved.

The JC’s theatre critic John Nathan gave the show five stars in last week’s paper and said it was the evening that Jewish theatre goers had been waiting for, without even realising it. One of the directors, Zoe Templeman-Young, said it “felt like family” in the rehearsal room, and that impression spread to the audience as well. We were watching characters who thought like us, our friends and family. They talked like us. Their concerns were ours — antisemitism (and you-know-who) yes, but also the fear of fluffing kaddish, the question of how important one’s Jewish DNA is.

The characters, their quirks, the language they used were familiar and funny and ours. And it was a very British evening too, which made you realise how often we have Jewishness presented to us through an American (or Israeli, or mittel-European or even Russian) lens, but hardly ever a home-grown one.

It was an immensely entertaining evening, a chance to feel connected and reflected and understood, an evening to kvell about the enormous amount of talent we have as a community. And one of the loveliest aspects of it was seeing bunches of Jews — young, old, frum, whatever — in animated discussion in the bar afterwards. I wish I’d invited my non-Jewish friends to this show.

That weekend I read about Rishi Sunak’s pledge to end funding for degrees which are not considered financially viable — those that don’t guarantee their graduates high salaries. Apparently he would assess degrees through their drop-out rates, numbers in graduate jobs and salary thresholds, “with exceptions for nursing and other courses with high social value”.

I wonder if performing arts and creative writing degrees would count as being of “high social value”? Certainly many in the creative industries are worried that these are exactly the kind of degrees that Sunak wishes to shut down. Indeed, universities are beginning to shed them, just as schools started dropping art, music and drama when they were omitted from the core curriculum. Actors and writers and directors need to be able to teach as well as act, write and direct, in order to make a living. Universities are often incubator units for new work. It’s an attack on a whole economic eco system.

The way in which minorities are represented — in books, on stage, on screen — is an important part of how those minorities are treated in society. As Jews, we’ll gain a lot if the writers and actors and directors who took part in the events at the Kiln feel empowered to, well, be more Jewish in their work.

It would be a great shame if talent like theirs was not nurtured and developed, because of a political viewpoint which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

August 19, 2022 11:57

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