Life & Culture

Jews. In their own words Theatre review: 'Packs a hugely powerful punch'

This production undoubtedly represents a moment in the battle against Left-wing antisemitism


Jews. In Their Own Words
Royal Court | ★★★★✩

Blood, Money and Power.  Like the plagues intoned during a seder, these are the headings of three key sections in journalist Jonathan Freedland’s much-anticipated play about antisemitism on the progressive left.  Only here the plagues are targeted at Jews instead of their oppressors.

The play is the brainchild of actor Tracy-Ann Oberman and its bones are interviews with 12 Jews conducted, edited and artfully arranged by Freedland, his first play. Some are well known such as novelist Howard Jacobson (“he won the Booker, someone repeatedly kvells”), former Labour MP Luciana Berger, journalist Stephen Bush, Labour grandee Margaret Hodge and Oberman too whose stand against Corbyn-era antisemitism in the Labour party made her the target of Jew-hatred of a particularly misogynistic nature. Troll messages she received shown here include “Rich, Zionist, whore”.

Other interviewees are not so well known: painter/decorator Phillip Abrahams, paediatrician Tammy Rothenberg and former president of the Union of Jewish Students Hannah Rose.  Iraqi-born and raised Edwin Shuker — now in the UK — brings an Arabic-speaking Sephardic perspective while Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust often serves as narrator using his years of studying antisemitism to trace its provenance.  Did you know the blood libel is an English invention?

All these people are incarnated by an excellent ensemble cast, but before the serious testimony begins the show starts playfully with Hershel Fink himself (the character famously aborted by the Royal Court for perpetuating antisemitic stereotype) landing almost naked on stage, bemused by how he came into being, and given a crash course on what went down by nonother than God herself, (voiced by Oberman).   

But here, and I think for the first time as a critic, I have to declare an interest in the subject at hand which might be said to cloud my objectivity. I’ll try not to let it.

Because among the examples of antisemitism highlighted by this show, two took place in the theatre. Indeed, this theatre. On occasions such as these, I have found myself arriving as a critic to see a play and going home to write about how that evening Jews were defamed.

This is annoying because I am not a member of the Anti-Defamation League.  I’m an arts journalist. Yet because I’m also Jewish, I am sometimes dragged into the mire made by others, most recently by the creators of Seven Jewish Children who simply cannot see that their humanitarian response to the atrocious death of Palestinians in Gaza was itself inhumane.

Their play was a tiny, unwitting, 10-minute crime against humanity (as much as any work of art can be) and which here Howard Jacobson (superbly voiced by Steve Furst) describes as “medieval” for the way Jews are identified as the killers of non-Jewish children.   

I hope the writer,  Caryl Churchill and former Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke (currently directing C.P. Taylor’s Good which is about antisemitism) come and see this show and perhaps the argument can stop.

Jacobson is equally succinct on the irony of how ridiculous the blood libel is when you consider that no one is more fastidious when it comes to blood than Jews. He, like everyone else in Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield’s simply staged production addresses the audience directly as if we were Freedland.  Jacobson’s testimony is one of many in a show brimful of antisemitism, some in the workplace, much of it online — projected on mobile screens — and occasionally in dumbshow medieval garb to explain its origins.  One section has a satirical song which glories in the chorus “It was the Jews who did it…”

At the preview performance I saw,  the accompaniment didn’t work so the cast were left to soldier on a cappella.  But even with piano satirical songs so often feel more pleased with themselves and too on-the-nose than cutting and this one is no different.  Other attempts to break with the formality that goes with testimony plays also feel forced, such as placing the cast around a table as if the interviewees had gathered for a convention on antisemitism.

Yet where the show conveys today’s personal cost of the oldest hatred it packs a hugely powerful punch. Luciana Berger’s account of how she was treated by the Labour party during a constituency meeting in Liverpool reveals a staggering stony-faced absence of empathy even after her colleagues knew about the abuse she was getting.

One of the arguments against verbatim plays is that they claim authenticity over fictionalised works.  And in the Berger testimony, there seemed to be the bones of what those critics might think is the play still waiting to be written about modern, British antisemitism.

Still, this production undoubtedly represents a moment in the battle against Left-wing antisemitism.  And for placing centre stage the anxieties of what it is to be Jewish in modern Britain Featherstone’s Royal Court deserves recognition.

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