Jonathan Freedland’s series of interviews with Jewish people, adapted into the verbatim play Jews. In Their Own Words. at the Royal Court, is immediately incisive – even before any of the individuals spoken to by the Guardian columnist utter a single word.
In the very same theatre a few months prior, a play titled Rare Earth Mettle featured a manipulative billionaire with the Jewish name Hershel Fink (before it changed to Henry Finn), tapping into harmful antisemitic tropes. Seven Jewish Children – again at the Court – attracted similar criticism when it was staged in 2009.
Sporting nothing more than underwear, Fink is thrust in front of The Creator booming from the heavens. The infamous stereotype, and us as an audience, are due an education over the next hour and 45 minutes – so captivating and far-reaching is the lesson that its duration feels longer than that.
You’ll recognise some of the interviewees, too. There’s Doctor Who actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, who came up with the idea behind this production; former Labour/Change UK/Liberal Democrat MP Luciana Berger; and current Labour MP Margaret Hodge. That you won’t know others is not a bad thing at all. The experiences of the 12 individuals are unique in their own right, though united in a collective frustration and exhaustion.
As it unearths the breadth of antisemitism – diving straight into the hateful bigotry surrounding Jewish people, power and money – one of its most compelling arguments is around the slippery, elusive nature of anti-Jewish hatred. A Jew shutting down a racist claiming Jewish people have all the power only risks proving their point. Another interviewee observes the pressure to tip taxi drivers so as to dismantle the negative stereotype that Jews are tight with their money, only to risk implying they have a lot of cash by tipping in the first place.
The harsh, distressing realities of the 12 interviewees are relentlessly striking and devastating. Ms Hodge (Debbie Chazen) offers up successive gut punches in the form of vitriolic Twitter abuse, while Ms Berger’s (Louisa Clein) disillusionment with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn – yes, the play isn’t afraid to explore that issue, either – is poignant as a tragedy which could so easily have been prevented. A change of the accent and gesticulations and the actors juggle multiple roles seamlessly. We needn’t not rely on the projections reminding us of who’s speaking at certain points in the play, as single mannerisms soon become enough to identify a character.
Equally, humour isn’t added when a lot of the testimony is naturally funny anyway. We warm to Phillip Abrahams’ (Steve Furst) insistence on his name having two ‘ls’ and cutting short his Mum’s career aspirations. A trickier comedic moment comes with what is essentially a conspiracist can-can – an actual song and dance number titled ‘It Was The Jews That Did It’. So daring and provocative is the scene that it feels inappropriate to be anything other than a little unsettled by it all, but that’s rather the point, and I’d prefer that to laughing and not responding to such an important subject matter with the seriousness and sensitivity it requires.
As with any play or educational content about a minority seeking to inform those outside the marginalised community, there runs the risk of prompting pity rather than genuine acceptance, or the more productive commitment to dismantle our own prejudices affecting a certain group. So unwavering is Jews. In Their Own Words in calling out so much – and, let’s be honest, the left-wing folk likely to spend an evening in a theatre – however, that it leaves little time to prompt unhelpful sympathy.
It instead presents call-to-actions to continue the conversation, and leaving counter-arguments to ferment in the minds of those watching long after they’ve left the auditorium. Of course, there are the legitimately heartbreaking and shocking anecdotes dotted around the play – least of all Ms Hodge’s grandmother being killed in the Holocaust – but Friesland, in his curation of the testimonies, times them well. As co-directors, Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield balance the tone of the piece perfectly.
The Royal Court may hope Jews. In Their Own Words. redeems them in light of past controversies – whether it does is not my place to say – but at the very least, it is confidently confrontational, enthralling and thought-provoking. If anything else, it succeeds in the theatrical aim of starting many conversations – discussions about supporting Jewish people which have been started and facilitated by Jewish people. The urgency and strength of such an idea is so easily felt in this production, and just how vital it is that as many people as possible see it cannot be understated.
Jews. In Their Own Words. is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 22 October.
Captioned performances will take place on 5, 12 and 20 October, with a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance scheduled for 19 October.
A relaxed performance will occur on 15 October, and an audio-described performance will take place on 22 October.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Jews. In Their Own Words.’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.