Jews. In Their Own Words Review – Horrific revelations galloping through centuries of bigotry

This verbatim drama about anti-Semitism ironically grew out of an incident of anti-Semitism in the theater it is now directing, and it begins with a reference to that episode. A man emerges from a crackling light and conjures the birth of humanity to learn that he is Hershel Fink, the accidentally Jewish-sounding name originally given to the rapacious billionaire in the play Rare Earth Mettle, which premieres at the 2021 Royal Court was listed.

Based on an idea by actress Tracy-Ann Oberman and written by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, the play aims to examine anti-Semitism within liberal institutions like this venue and more emphatically the political left, which pose as the enlightened, anti-racist “good guys ‘ but harbor unconscious bigotry.

It’s a playful start to a production directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield that’s packed with bold theatrics, songs and tongue-in-cheek jokes, albeit underpinned by a deadly serious investigation into why this oldest form of hate still exists. From that opening riff, Jews takes us through centuries of prejudice and persecution, as comprehensively as we can in under two hours. Freedland has meticulously researched: 180,000 words of interviews and 12 voices ranging from significant Jewish figures – including Margaret Hodge, Howard Jacobson and Oberman – to everyday members of British society whose accounts are just as influential, and all of whom are played by seven nimble changing actors.

Touching many bases...Jews.  In her own words.
Touching many bases…Jews. In her own words. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It brings to the fore a wealth of important, appalling, and too often ignored realities, experiences, and arguments, but rather ends up as a gallop across centuries of terrain, packing in too much without unpacking fully enough, and touching on so many fundamentals as to risk some parts how to sound like soundbites.

Its theatricality doesn’t always land and feels like it tries too hard to lend a dramatic touch to the literal form, playing mystery-style medieval mimes while characters narrate the origins of anti-Semitic tropes, from the myth of the money-lending Jew to to the garish fantasy of blood libel (linking Jewish rituals to the blood of Gentile children).

The play gains power when this is dropped for a simpler, quieter form of storytelling, around a table, one character after another speaking – of a swastika being etched on their family car, of growing up in Iraq and listening from radio plays with offensive Jewish stereotypes, from casual but heinous abuse in schools, taxis, offices. These are more distilled moments of power, and we wish for less so we can have more, giving full meaning to an argument or experience.

The play’s larger scope somewhat undermines its central purpose of also focusing on left-wing anti-Semitism. It shows us how pervasive this form of racial bigotry is, well beyond party politics, although we certainly get alarming reports from Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and former Labor Shadow Secretary Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) of their inaction and cover-up experienced, along with hideous intersections of misogyny and anti-Semitism on social media.

Blood libel investigated...Jews.  In her own words.
Blood libel investigated…Jews. In her own words. Photo: Manuel Harlan

But the drama shows much more convincingly how anti-Semitism pervades culture and history and is embedded in language itself. Stephen BushBilly Ashcroft makes a valuable point on the liberal left’s characteristic distrust of money and power — a loaded association given long-held anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews running the media and possessing all wealth and power. However, other anti-left arguments sound more general: that the left supports the underdog and therefore stopped supporting Israel after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war (“The sentimental left…cannot sympathize with anyone who wins”). The Guardian is suspected to be guilty of the same.

Bush also points out that the left does not think of Jews as black, and given that statement it’s unfortunate that there is limited insight here into being a black-Jewish Briton – Bush is the only figure of mixed heritage although there is a story of an Iraqi refugee, Edwin Shuker (Hemi Yeroham).

There is an immensely powerful but all-too-brief look at inherited trauma and the legacy of the Holocaust, with sad tales of packed suitcases left at the door decades after World War II and a pediatrician who, just in case, of a ” viable career,” she says, having to flee, which is absolutely heartbreaking.

It introduces Israel as a topic, but also avoids it. “What does a foreign conflict have to do with me?” says one character, and others speak of being constantly asked for their opinion on the Middle East conflict. The play revives an old indictment of Caryl Churchill’s controversial 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, written shortly after Israel’s bombing of Gaza (which killed more than 200 Palestinian children). Jacobson (Steve Furst) recalls seeing it and feeling like the audience was “encouraged to boo the Jews.” We hear the play conjuring up myths surrounding blood libel and confusing the term “Jewish” with “Israeli” (Churchill and her play’s director, Dominic Cooke, have vigorously defended the play against these allegations).

Alarming reports... Debbie Chazen utters the words of politician Margaret Hodge.
Alarming reports… Debbie Chazen utters the words of politician Margaret Hodge. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“Criticize what you want – the prime minister, the settlement policy, this war, this military strategy,” says one character. “Most Jews would agree with you. But don’t do it in a way that criticizes Israel’s Judaism.” The opacity of this statement prompts further discussion, which we don’t get, along with tentative statements about the intersection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that dangle the discussion. Instead, the drama moves away from examining how protest and pro-Palestinian sympathies can legitimately be expressed by Jewish voices in the public sphere and in the arts, which Cooke says was the point of his play.

Ultimately, his exploratory intentions are there, but his scope is simply too broad to move on to the next topic and then the next. But even in that there is a sense of a greater, justifiable fear: this feels like a play being given a rare chance to air its urgent and desperately important themes, making it feverish to cover all the ground in the time it got granted.

At the Jerwood Theater Downstairs, Royal Court, London until October 22nd.

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