Life & Culture

Theatre review: A Night of New Jewish Writing

'This was the evening that Jewish theatregoers never knew they were waiting for until it happened'


Kiln Theatre | ★★★★★

Curated and produced by drama school graduates Dan Wolff and Sam Thorpe-Spinks this was the evening that Jewish theatregoers never knew they were waiting for until it happened: a world premiere of six short works by leading Jewish playwrights and theatre practitioners each addressing in its own way what it is and how it feels to be Jewish in modern Britain.

It also served as a showcase for Jewish acting and directing talent.

Yet as if highlighting the theatre establishment’s view that Jews are a subject as niche as a Radio 3 midnight special on the genre of jazz yodelling, the Kiln allocated not its theatre to new works by such accomplished playwrights as Alexis Zegerman, Ryan Craig and Amy Rosenthal, but its cinema (for chrissake).

Still, if over the course of the event’s two days one or two artistic directors squeezed into the packed auditorium, they may have glimpsed how their stages might be enriched if they were as curious about stories with Jews as they are about, well, most other people.

As discussed by three of the evening’s contributors in last week’s JC these AD’s (if there were any) may also have discovered how seriousness and comedy coexists in Jewish writing, and how stories arising out of oppression need not necessarily be breast and brow-beating victim statements, but as funny as a Warsaw Ghetto fighter who, keen to take on his persecutors, shouts “What are we waiting for — the Jewish air force?”

A sense of past persecution permeates Zegerman’s piece YID which focuses on a modern couple (David Ellis and Katie Bernstein) who discover the word has been painted on their house.

The startling twist comes when the piece vaults to a different place (and presumably period) where the couple’s counterparts in Germany have a ‘Juden’ on their door.

Craig’s 0.43% is a fizzing delight as it explores how a Jewish couple’s identity is ripped apart by a DNA test which reveals that he is genetically much less Jewish than she. Under the author’s pretty perfect direction the piece turns between brilliant comedy and chilling drama on a sixpence — as does Rosenthal’s A Quiet Voice.

This work is a heartfelt cry for nuance among the screaming voices of Twitter-driven public discourse. A teacher (Yolanda Grace) tells Jewish parents (Olivia Emden and Sam Thorpe-Spinks) that their daughter is not taking antisemitism seriously enough. “She’s six!” objects the mother. True, the teacher is Jewish (perhaps to avoid portraying gentile teachers as lacking empathy?) but she is steeped in a dogma that encourages victim status.

The piece also has the best speech of the evening. It rails against the cacophony of digital discourse as “real anti-semitism steals in undetected under the door like smoke.” Every rare work by Rosenthal makes you want to see another.

But perhaps the most audacious piece is Nick Cassenbaum’s barmy and bizarre After The Lavoiya which channels old-school East End gangster Jews into a free-wheeling revenge fantasy about Corbyn.

The work is a great, dangerous, cathartic up-yours to the smoke that snuck in under Labour’s door.

On its own it makes a strong case for this event to be turned into an annual celebration of new Jewish writing. With the other works added, the case really is inarguable.

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