When the name Hershel Fink was given to the character of a morally bankrupt non-Jewish billionaire in a play at the Royal Court last year, there was an outcry from Jews, an admission by the theatre of unconscious bias and a last-second change (to Henry Finn). Putting on Jews. In Their Own Words is an act of atonement by the theatre and its artistic director, Vicky Featherstone – who co-directs alongside Audrey Sheffield – and a plea to make the antisemitism stop.
For this verbatim drama, from an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman, Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland interviewed 12 Jews, and seven actors channel their characters. A big appeal is that most of the interviewees are public figures. Helpfully – because the actors are in their own clothes throughout, though they add wardrobe items during a scene of historical narrative – when a character begins speaking the name is projected on to the set.
While the interviews were done separately, Freedland writes the 12 on stage together to create a mostly flowing quasi-dialogue. There is ironic humour too: during a discussion of conspiracy tropes, the characters become a high-kicking chorus line, singing a rather (too) catchy number: It’s the Jews that did it/Those dirty stinking Jews.
The monologues reveal the most interesting and troubling stories: businessman and philanthropist Edwin Shuker (played by Hemi Yeroham) tells of seeing the public hanging of Jews in his native Iraq, Margaret Hodge (Debbie Chazen) describes hostile officials visiting her first-generation parents’ home to check how English they are, and Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) – in a speech delivered with a searing emotional intensity – recalls being threatened, abused and hounded out of the Labour Party by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.
Conversation shifts from the tropes of money, blood and power to the responses of others to accusations of antisemitism, including the inevitable: “But my problem is not Jews, it’s Israel.” In the final scene, the actors break the fourth wall to reveal that they are all Jewish.
Two previous Royal Court plays, Perdition (1987) and Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children (2009), have been accused of perpetuating antisemitism. The former was cancelled before it opened. The latter is referenced in this play, about which Churchill has written to the Guardian in complaint.
The punctuation of the title suggests the aim of ‘putting a full stop’ to antisemitism; we can but hope. What is certain is that this imaginative blend of polemic life and real life will appeal to Jews and non-Jews alike.
At the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London until 22 October.
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