Life & Culture

The JC Awards 2022: Theatre - No warnings needed in an evening to kvell over

This year saw an array of stand-out performances despite several antisemitism controversies


GOOD by Taylor, , Writer - C.P. Taylor, Director - Dominic Cooke, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2022, Credit: Johan Persson/

I am all for trigger warnings when it comes to theatre. Indeed a central part of my job as JC theatre critic is to warn you against seeing productions where traumatic memories, uncomfortable emotions, upsetting opinions and disgraceful behaviour are absent from shows that you might have otherwise spent your money on. Because obviously the worst thing that can happen to an audience is that nothing is triggered.

There are, however, those who wish to be protected from the prime function of art, which is why Shakespeare’s Globe production of The Merchant of Venice wins this year’s Most Bleedin’ Obvious Statement award for posting the trigger warning that Shakespeare’s play contains antisemitism and other prejudices.

When you think about it this thoughtful act has heartwarming implications. It is, after all, difficult to imagine it was made for Jewish theatregoers.

For them the announcement that Shakespeare’s Jew play, in which Shylock loves his ducats more than his daughter and has grievances that morph into a blood lust for Christian flesh, contains Jew hatred is as revelatory a statement as roses are red and violets are blue (“everyone hates Shylock the Jew”?).

This then only leaves one possibility — that the venue was actually addressing those non-Jewish members of its audience who find the sight of a Jew being maligned and mistreated so upsetting they need to be protected from the trauma. This is my kind of gentile.

Perhaps they still needed counselling after buying a ticket at a different playhouse, one most trusted to never perpetuate racist narratives, only to find that the Royal Court had, in fact, lovingly created one in the form of a rich but morally bankrupt tycoon whose name had to be hurriedly changed from Hershel Fink to Henry Finn in order to de-Jew him.

Yes, I know Rare Earth Mettle was last year’s Unintentional Bias gong winner but the antidote to the production arrived this year in the form of Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim response to antisemitism on the liberal left, Jews. In Their Own Words, a slam dunk for this year’s Fat Chance award given to shows that were impossible to imagine ever happening until they did.

The work was based on Freedland’s interviews about antisemitism with a wide selection of Jews, from Booker-winning novelist Howard Jacobson to painter/decorator Phillip Abrahams.

The work also featured two of the Court’s very own contributions to a genre of plays in which Jews are seen as the enemy of social or political justice. It began playfully with a bemused Hershel Fink being given a crash course by God (the voice of Tracy-Ann Oberman) on how he was begat by bigotry and then later explored Seven Jewish Children, Caryl Churchill’s notorious ten-minute play.

Knowing this was happening on the same stage as SJC premiered could not have been the most comfortable of moments for the play’s director and most vocal defender, Dominic Cooke. His revival of C.P. Taylor’s Good, starring David Tennant as a decent German who becomes a Nazi and Elliot Levey as his Jewish best friend, overlapped with Freedland’s play.

This is how two productions by one of the finest directors of his generation came to be simultaneously represented on two London stages. One of them is accused of antisemitism, the other warns against it. A clear winner of the inaugural You Couldn’t Make It Up award.

Next week sees the final performance of Good, a production that I worry takes a toll on Levey. I once interviewed the late actor Bruno Ganz who told me how after playing Hitler in Downfall (considered to be the finest portrayal of the Nazi leader) it took him two years to recover from the psychological effects of inhabiting a role that had what he described as “this pitiless quality.”

“I couldn’t find where that came from. I couldn’t find where the hatred began,” he mused as if a part of him were still lost in the darkness.

Levey’s job is a very different challenge. But there must be a toll with a performance that daily demands he switch between the rising panic of assimilated German Jew Maurice realising he is about to be consumed by the Holocaust and the calculating calm of such real-life Nazis as Philipp Bouhler who helped bring it about.

Add to that Levey’s previous production, Cabaret, in which he played another doomed German Jew, Herr Schultz, and the actor has been living in the darkest period of Jewish history for longer than might be healthy.

Still, out of all this came one of the highlights of the year when Levey won his first — but one suspects not his last — Olivier, which is by some margin the only award on this page worth having. Except perhaps the winner of this year’s Kvell award.

The Night of New Jewish Writing at the Kiln curated by drama school graduates Sam Thorpe-Spinks and Dan Wolff was evidence that the pool of Jewish theatre talent in this country is deep.

Comprised of six short works by such accomplished writers as Alexis Zegerman, Ryan Craig and Amy Rosenthal, and including a barmy revenge fantasy about Corbyn by Nick Cassenbaum, this was a rare yet electric showcase of the kind of Jewish writing and acting that rarely finds its way to the British stage.

Pretty much every one of these works demanded to be given a full-length production. Maybe next year.

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