Life & Culture

What a drama: three playwrights discuss Jewish theatre in the UK today

Ryan Craig, Amy Rosenthal and Alexis Zegerman talk to John Nathan ahead of a special event showcasing new Jewish work


On Monday and Tuesday next week London’s Kiln Theatre will host an evening of six new pieces of writing by some of this country’s most prominent Jewish playwrights and theatre practitioners. The show is the brainchild of drama school acting graduates Dan Wolff and Sam Thorpe-Spinks, who after encountering antisemitism and insensitivity at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama while studying there commissioned six Jewish writers and theatre practitioners to create an anthology of modern Jewish stories and a platform from which writers can freely address Jewish subjects.
Each of the short works respond to two questions: “How do we define ourselves as Jewish?” and “How is that changing?”
Three of the dramatists, Ryan Craig, Amy Rosenthal and Alexis Zegerman spoke to me about the show and their contributions. In the following conversation we discuss how being Jewish in Britain is a subject which is rarely reflected on the British stage, and the challenges that go with being Jewish playwrights.

Ryan Craig
Plays include: What We Did To Weinstein, The Holy Rosenbergs, Filthy Business
Title of new work: 0.43 %.
Subject: A Jewish couple undertake DNA tests to establish their genetic antecedents only to find they have wildly different results which affects their relationship. Their understanding of their own identities and of each other has suddenly mutated. A chasm in the relationship opens.
“They get pretty nasty with each other,” says Craig. The work was inspired by a friend whose DNA test results subverted the connections he felt towards Sephardic Jews, Moroccans and Arabs. “He couldn’t help but be disappointed that he was 100 per cent Ashkenazi,” says Craig.

Amy Rosenthal
Plays include: Sitting Pretty, Jerusalem Syndrome, On the Rocks.
Title of new work: A Quiet Voice
Subject: A Jewish couple are attending a parent/teacher evening during which they are told their six year old daughter isn’t taking her Judaism and antisemitism seriously enough.
“The work came out of some thoughts I was having about my little niece and nephew,” says Rosenthal. “[I’ve been thinking about] what they’re absorbing from what we tell them at Passover, what we’re making them inherit, and my desire to make them feel happy and safe in a world where they might be in danger, or not liked and how you balance those things.”

Alexis Zegerman
Plays include: The Fever Syndrome, Holy Shit and (as an actor) Leopoldstadt
Title of new work: was undecided at the time of the discussion but may be: Yid.
Subject: The word “yid” has been painted on a Jewish home.
“There’s a monologue in the work in which a woman talks about when she was at university and in the middle of this student union thing and someone shouted ‘Shut up, you f***ing Yid” [at her]. I have to say that did actually happen to me. It wasn’t a student union thing, it was a get-in for an Edinburgh show. I was 21. Everybody around me was 21. The man who said this to me was very well educated and the rest of the room was silent. Nobody came to my defence. For me that chasm of silence was almost worse than what that idiotic man said to me.”


The following is an edited transcript of our conversation online ahead of the show. We join them as Ryan Craig promises that, despite the serious nature of the subjects, the Kiln evening will be funny.
RC = Ryan Craig
AZ = Alexis Zegerman
AR = Amy Rosenthal
JN = John Nathan.

RC: I should say that it’s going to be a funny evening.
AZ: Yes, of course. How could it not be?
RC: I hold onto that idea that we can do serious and funny at the same time.

AZ: And it doesn’t lessen the gravitas of the piece.

RC: I think it enhances it.

AR: If I had to answer the question: What is the spark of these plays? It is the understanding that comedy and tragedy are the same thing. And for a lot of us [Jewish playwrights] that is just in our bones.

AZ: Do you guys think the way we write, which I think has a lot of commonality, gets misunderstood by the [theatre] establishment?

AR: Yeah, I think it is the case. I also think that Chekhov had the same problem. [I know] I’m putting us in the best company…
AZ: Do it!

AR: But if it is in your understanding that life is funny and sad at the same time, and you believe that one doesn’t detract from the other and want to do both, I do think there is a danger that you are either taken less seriously or [theatres] fail to see it’s funny at all. It’s like they can’t believe that something can be both. And although Chekhov doesn’t have that problem here [in the UK] I do think it is a problem that is to do with a tragicomic tone and sensibility, and that it something a lot of Jewish writers share that makes it quite hard to find our place.

RC: When we were doing the The Holy Rosenbergs [2011, National Theatre] which is set on the eve of the levoya (funeral) of the [family’s] eldest son, a lot of the people who read the play said ‘I don’t understand why they are making jokes.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t understand the question.’ How on earth do you get through the night without doing these things? And it’s not a conscious act when you’re writing. You just write. You’re trying to tap into something; connect with something, and the humour comes out accidentally. You’re writing about something serious and you find your character is saying things that can funny. I’ve been recently been working with a very senior director/playwright and he was looking at a couple of lines in the text and saying “This could be funnier if he did this.” And I said “Okay, but that wasn’t the intention,” and he said “What do you mean?” and I said “I wasn’t trying to be funny.” It completely changed his perception of the play, because he had read it as a comedy. And then he realised, it’s not a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It was an interesting moment. I was writing tragedy and it was coming out as comedy. I think Chekhov kept reminding people he was writing a comedy.

AR: He [Chekhov] knew that if the audience laughed, they got the sadness and the anger. It’s the laugh that is the “tell” I think. If an audience aren’t finding it funny then I don’t think they are getting any of it.
I had a brilliant thing happen at Hampstead theatre when Uncle Vanya was on a couple of years ago. I was there with a friend who has a very loud laugh. Every time she laughed a woman in front kept turning and tutting and giving her looks. In the end, my friend leaned forward and whispered, “It’s a comedy!” and the woman whispered back “It’s a tragedy!” and I was going “It’s both!, It’s both!”

RC: That’s great, just great!

JN: Let’s move on from Jewish tragicomedy to something the producers of the Kiln show told me. They said they were hoping to discover from Jewish playwrights and practitioners who had “been around the block” (sorry) what they have to say about being Jewish in the [UK’s theatre] industry.

AZ: I think the big difference now is that we are having the discussion of the [previously] unsaid. I’ll go back to that “Shut up you f***ing Yid” at the Edinburgh show get-in when nobody said anything, there were 30 people around me. I hope we wouldn’t be in that situation anymore. In terms of what people perceive as our representation in the industry, it’s perceived that we are not under-numbered and are part of some cabalistic group and [laughing] all helping and emailing each other. But actually we are still a persecuted minority and I think, [we are now] able to have that discussion, and say that we are Jewish, which I probably wouldn’t have done 15, 20 years ago when I started writing. I think that has changed now.

AR: It’s funny, because I feel it’s almost the other way round, perhaps partly because of my family and parents [Maureen Lipman and Jack Rosenthal] and the affection with which they were perceived. I grew up thinking we’re Jewish and everybody likes us and it’s fine, and you can talk about it. And [now] I have a growing discomfort. I feel like it’s not cute anymore. It makes me nervous talking about it [being Jewish] in a group. I’m teaching a [drama writing] course [and] where it was a part of my identity that I was open and joky about and referred to quite a lot, now I’m much more alert to an unfriendliness that I either never realised or believed was there, which is so counter to my general sense of optimism.

RC: I think that I was very naive in the early days. I decided that I was going to say whatever I wanted. And if it upsets people there’s nothing I can do about that, as long as I deal with it as honestly and as openly as I can. I think I have been living with the consequences of that. I do think that there is suspicion and a lack of curiosity [about Jews in the industry]. We’re coming back to the question that Alexis asked [about whether the theatre establishment are receptive to what might be described as a Jewish writing tone]. But it’s also political. I think it’s also to do with our place in the world, our place in the patriarchy. We are the original of the Abrahamic faiths; we were there at the beginning of this thing we call Western Civilisation and yet we’re pitching ourselves as a minority with a sort of victim status. Which of course we are as well. It’s too complicated for a lot of people. And so Jews are too complicated for many people. They don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about this. They just want to now which box are you in? “Am I supposed to feel this way about you or that way? So here we go again. Are we funny? Are we tragic? Well, we’re both.

AZ: It’s [often[quite hard to define the antisemitism in the industry. But the way that the three of us here have faced antisemitism, some of it can’t be quantified. But I would say it’s partly Amy feeling that she can’t bring it [her Jewishness] into a discussion, or it’s the [undeclared] quota of ‘we’ve had enough Jewish plays’ in the last couple of seasons.

RC: Yes you would never hear that said of other minorities.

AR: It’s to do with it’s to do with Israel, isn’t it, to some extent - to do with assumptions that are made about us in the industry.
It’s the terrible feeling that people think we are not left wing now; that people associate us somehow with the right, and it’s a very left wing industry. And also, there’s a certain amount of eye-rolling I think. People think “Well, we’ve heard their story, we’ve done the Holocaust, it’s had its moment, it’s been mainstream.”

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