‘It’s a disaster’: theatre giants draw battle lines over ‘Jewface’

A debate over the casting of non-Jews in Jewish roles has hit centre stage


Was it the moment when identity politics warriors had finally planted their flag on the hallowed ground of Jewish acting?

Earlier this month, Friday Night Dinner star Tamsin Greig said she “probably shouldn’t” have played a Yiddishe mamma in the much-loved sitcom – because she isn’t Jewish herself.

Coming from Britain’s best-known “Jewish” mother, the sudden angst over “Jewface” — casting non-Jews in conspicuously Jewish roles — was given a great deal of weight.

But it left many giants of Jewish theatre seething. This week, they have decided to hit back.
Celebrated playwright-director Patrick Marber, who directed Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt, angrily dismissed the idea that “lived experienced” should be critical to casting and making plays.

He told the JC: “I f****ing hate that expression. Because ‘lived experience’ is sort of a denial of what creativity is and denies the actor the fundamental challenge and right to become someone else to impersonate another human being from another time, from another culture from another religion and another sexuality and other gender.”

Mr Marber added: “I really want us Jews to fight our corner, but to not be exclusive and excluding.

“I want us Jews to be liberal-minded and generous. I think a gentile can play a Jew and a Jew can play a gentile. I don’t like it when someone plays a Jew and gets it wrong. [But] I don’t like quotas. I don’t like laws. I think we should be better than that, we Jews.”

Elliot Levey, who is currently playing the doomed German Jew Herr Schultz in Cabaret alongside Jessie Buckley and Eddie Redmayne, agreed.

“The notion of people showing their papers to authenticate Jewish ancestry in order to justify playing a Jewish role is a dystopian nightmare,” he said. “I’m adamant that we can’t have checks and balances.”

Mr Levey added that he knew a prominent non-Jewish actor who, in order to land a Jewish role, dug up a photo of man who looked Jewish and claimed it was his grandfather. He didn’t get it, he said.

Playwright Ryan Craig, whose plays What We Did to Weinstein, The Holy Rosenbergs and Filthy Business have placed Jews centre stage for more than 15 years, agreed that the rise of the concept of “Jewface” was a cultural “disaster”.

In his play Our Class for the National Theatre, which was inspired by the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbours in the town of Jedwabne in 1941, one of the central Jewish roles of Dora was played by non-Jew Sinead Matthews, as were other Jewish roles in the production.

“I can’t imagine going back and doing that differently and it being a better result,” Mr Craig said. “Sinead was absolutely remarkable. Probably she was changed as a person by playing that role.”

But not all Jewish stars oppose the idea. Actress Maureen Lipman – who made headlines last week by declaring that cancel culture was killing comedy – told the JC that she was not comfortable with Helen Mirren, who is not Jewish, playing Israeli leader Golda Meir in the forthcoming movie Golda.

“With that I disagree, because the Jewishness of the character is so integral,” said Ms Lipman, who sees extra Jewish significance in the fact that Meir was Prime Minister of Israel.

“I’m sure she [Mirren] will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”

Those on Ms Lipman’s side of the debate argue that Jews are being treated less sympathetically than other groups. Or as Jewish-American comedian Sarah Silverman puts it,

“Right now, representation f***ing matters. It has to also finally matter for Jews as well. Especially Jewish women.”

Ms Lipman added: “Perhaps you need to have some sort of panel of people who say this is not acceptable, this is acceptable.”

The issue of casting non-Jews in Jewish roles was brought to the fore by an open letter in 2019 signed by Jewish theatre practitioners including Ms Lipman, fellow actor Miriam Margolyes and producer Adam Lenson.

The letter was triggered by a production of the Jewish musical Falsettos, which had no Jews in its cast or creative team.

This was an example of “overt appropriation”, the letter said.

It also called for “lived experience” to be a cornerstone of productions about Jews, and highlighted the practice of “Jewface” as something to avoid.

But another prominent Jewish theatre practitioner, who asked not to be named, said that the most interesting aspect about the Falsettos letter in 2019 were the number of Jewish theatre practitioners who did not sign.

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