The Royal Court apologises 'unreservedly' to British Jews for Hershel Fink character

The apology comes amid backlash over the theatre's internal antisemitism report


VICKY FEATHERSTONE ; Portrait ; Artistic Director ; Royal Court Theatre ; London, UK ; 20 May 2019 ; Credit and Copyright: Helen Murray

The Royal Court has apologised “unreservedly” to Britain’s Jews for naming a fictional grasping billionaire “Hershel Fink”, the JC can reveal.

However, there was an immediate backlash from community leaders who say the theatre’s report on the row has failed to address a long history of other allegedly antisemitic productions.

Speaking exclusively to the JC as the report into the controversy is published, the Royal Court’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone said:  “The big learning for me has been about how few Jewish artists have felt that they can be out about their Jewishness with their work at the Royal Court, and in other areas of culture.

“That was an absolute shock and something which feel a huge sense of responsibility to be able to make a shift about and do something about.”

She added: “I’ve been absolutely humbled by the generosity that Jewish artists who we've harmed with this failure have bought, to have been really open holding us to account.”

She spoke with emotion about her attempts to apply the Jewish practice of teshuvah, or ‘repentance’, to the Royal Court’s promise to rebuild relations with the Jewish community.

The row erupted last November, when it emerged that the upcoming production of a new play, Rare Earth Mettle, was to a feature a dubious character called Hershel Fink - an American billionaire greedily stripping indigenous people in Bolivia of their mineral resources. 

There was an outcry on social media by leading Jewish voices, including David Baddiel, who tweeted: "The Royal Court claims they didn't realise 'Hershel Fink' was a Jewish name. Hmmm. Somehow it just sounded so right for a world-conquering billionaire.”

The theatre swiftly released a statement apologising for “unconscious bias” and changed the character’s name to Henry Finn.

However, it soon emerged that there had been warnings going back months that the character’s name was Jewish and could be construed as an antisemitic stereotype.
A whistleblower contacted the JC with her account of how she had first voiced her concern in March 2020.

Asked if she had considered resigning over the row, Ms Featherstone said: “I would never walk away from my responsibility.

“My job is working this out. The job is making this place safe again, for writers, for artists, for people to feel confident about their own voice, for people who felt disenfranchised by the history of the Royal Court and by the work that we do, to feel that they can come here and be their true brilliant artistic selves, all of them.”

Ms Featherstone said there is now a programme of antisemitism training to be taken by all staff at the Royal Court.

But this is only the latest is a series of antisemitism controversies for the Royal Court. In 1987 the play Perdition, directed by Ken Loach, was abandoned after protests at its depiction of collaboration between Hungarian Jews and Nazis. In 2009, the theatre was accused of perpetuating ‘blood libel’ with Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, by the regular Royal Court collaborator Caryl Churchill.

The report was undertaken by the Royal Court’s Board of Directors, operating independently of Ms Featherstone. Ms Featherstone admitted its scope had excluded previous productions and focused only on Rare Earth Mettle. She said she understood “really clearly, where harm has been felt before” by Jewish people at the Royal Court and was committed to a new programme of work where “the conversation about Jewishness is central” and led by Jewish theatremakers.

She also spoke of her “absolute shock” and distress to have learned, through conversations with over 50 Jewish theatremakers, that “people in theatre often feel uncomfortable in disclosing that they are Jewish”, a point acknowledged by the report. But the Board of Deputies voiced their disappointment over the report, telling the JC: “Following the reports of antisemitism associated with a play being produced by the Royal Court Theatre, we met executives from the theatre to find out exactly how they planned to seek to make amends to the Jewish community.

“We made it clear that this was not seen by our community as a one-off incident. Instead, this was one in a series of terrible decisions made over the last 35 years, and to fail to acknowledge that would be extremely unwise. We also stressed that the theatre would need to properly reach out to the Jewish community in order to help fix its reputation.

“Today’s report appears to have been a missed opportunity to both properly acknowledge the past and set out a vision for the future.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a group of Jewish theatre-makers engaged in dialogue with the Royal Court told the JC: "We welcome the Royal Court's acknowledgment of wrongdoing. However, many of the report’s recommendations seem like common sense and don't focus specifically on antisemitism. 

"The lack of accountability is also disappointing. Therefore, the report feels insufficient given the hurt caused. "Moving forward, we hope the theatre industry takes this incident as a wake-up call to commit to eradicating anti-Jewish racism.”

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