Royal Court Theatre, London
Written by Jonathan Freedland
From an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Co-created by Vicky Featherstone, Tracy-Ann Oberman & Audrey Sheffield
Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone & Audrey Sheffield
Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play Jews. In Their Own Words sees a company of seven actors perform a hundred minute one-act verbatim drama that has been drawn from the words of twelve British Jews interviewed by Freedland earlier this year. It is their true stories that form the framework for much of this play that seeks to examine the history and present state of antisemitism.
The play is born from from the Royal Court’s own troubled relationship with Jews. Smarting from being caught out over the stereotypical naming of a villainous billionaire in the Court’s 2021 production of Rare Earth Mettle (a non-Jewish character curiously named Hershel Fink, an admitted lapse that the Court blamed on “unconscious bias” before renaming the character as Henry Finn) Freedland was swiftly hired by the theatre to expiate their sins, taking Tracy Ann-Oberman’s original idea and setting it to paper.
The dozen interviewees who include politicians Dame Margaret Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) all brought sound testimony, some of it terrifyingly mundane in the racism they spoke of and much of it harrowing. What these individuals have suffered and endured is not to be criticised at all. It is however Freedland’s stitching together of their stories that has created a flawed play.
The flaws lie in the structure of the piece that at times relies too heavily on exposition, lacking dramatic initiative. The historical depictions of the tragedies of York and Lincoln are treated with a patronizing simplicity that diminishes their horror and equally, a musical number that pops up half-way through the work is both incongruous and childish. If one is going to satirise Jews on stage and in song then recognise that both Monty Python and Mel Brooks have done it before, to perfection. Freedland’s verse pales in comparison.
And then there are the glaring omissions and bias of Freedland’s work in a play that may have been better titled Some Jews. In Their Own Words. Those of his original twelve whose political stance was known, were all from the Left. It may well be the Labour Party that has had to challenge its own problems with antisemitism, but in excluding Jews from the other shades of our political spectrum, where was the balance? The clumsy and dangerous impression that has been created here is that political antisemitism only exists on the Left.
Where was the reference to the ghastly, commonplace antisemitism that so many Jewish students face on campus today? And where was any reference at all to the vile antisemitism that sees frequent calls for the destruction of the State Of Israel and which was so clearly thrown into relief last year, with calls in London for the murder of Jews and the rape of Jewish women?
Notwithstanding Hodge’s remarkable and tragic personal history, where was there any argument to counter her harsh criticism of modern Israel. By all means let Dame Margaret have her opinion, but for Freedland to have omitted any balanced debate on current Israeli policies simply letting Hodge’s criticisms stand as an unquestioned truth, could be charitably described as his own unconscious bias. Others may call it a useful idiocy.
There has to be a good play waiting to emerge from Oberman’s original idea. This isn’t it.
Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan