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‘Jews. In Their Own Words.’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Jews. In Their Own Words, Royal Court, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The Royal Court’s impassioned play about antisemitism packs a punch but feels rushed

Not to be all ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’, but I might as well say that I went into this play by journalist Jonathan Freedland – after an idea by actor Tracy-Ann Oberman – entirely sympathetic to the idea that the British left has an antisemitism problem. I dabbled with Labour Party membership in the early Jeremy Corbyn era and my clear impression was that whatever his personal beliefs might be, a sizeable proportion of his online fanbase seemed to be very very angry with Jews (and also journalists) – I was up for the socialism, but I couldn’t hack the weird vibes, so I quit (well, cancelled my direct debit and ghosted them).

Anyhoo, Although Corbyn’s time as leader of the opposition is a major part of the context to ‘Jews. In Their Own Words’, it’s not the reason it’s opening the Court’s new season. 

The play begins with a very fun opening skit in which a loincloth-clad Herschel Fink – the aborted protagonist of the Court’s disastrous 2021 play ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ – stumbles on stage and has a chat with a cantankerous talking thundercloud. The cloud – by inference the God of the Old Testament – grumpily explains to him why giving the name ‘Herschel Fink’ to a rapacious capitalist was an antisemitic trope. Does he want to know more? He does? Great! For the Lord hath provided… verbatim theatre!

In case you’re not a nerd: verbatim theatre means that the dialogue is performed by actors but directly quoted from edited interviews with the play’s subjects, who the performers are striving to copy rather than interpret. Subjects here include Oberman herself, novelist Howard Jacobson, journalist Stephen Bush, MP Margaret Hodge and Jewish figures outside of the public eyes: Phillip Abrahams, a builder; Victoria Hart, a social worker. It’s basically a performed lecture about antisemitism that moves from past to present through such depressing projected headline topics as ‘money’, ‘blood libel’ and ‘power’. The interviewees share their lived experience of being subjected to all these prejudices. There are stories from their grandparents. They address the subject of the British left’s conflation of Jews and Israel and the dubious appropriation of the term ‘Zionist’. And yes, there’s stuff on the Corbyn-era Labour Party. 

The sort of angry types who greeted the show’s announcement with apoplectic carpet-bombing of the #ItWasAScam hashtag might be sad to discover that the man himself is barely talked about. However, there is plenty of chat about angry Corbynista types who throw the #ItWasAScam hashtag around. That these people intentionally made former Labour MP contributor Lucinda Berger’s life hell seems fairly far beyond doubt: the account of her grim final local party meeting is truly harrowing stuff.

Ultimately, though, this is just one component of a play that seeks to convey a more universal sense of the racism British Jews face both historically and presently.  

The thing is, you can be sympathetic to a show’s perspective while questioning a show’s exact purpose. Clearly it is therapeutic/cathartic for an oppressed community to experience art articulating and challenging its oppression. It was fairly apparent that the matinee audience I watched it with was substantially Jewish, and there was a lot of murmuring in recognition. But the show’s lecture-style format suggests it’s meant to be educating somebody – but who? You’re unlikely to get many members of the hard left down to it. Moreover, the sassy reference to ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ rather belies the far that if this play is on some level penitence for the Court, then it gets off rather lightly. The Fink stuff is cheeky but hardly a savaging. As a huge Caryl Churchill, fan I’ve often felt uneasy about her polemical short Royal Court play ‘Seven Jewish Children’, but while it is discussed here, Jacobson’s musings on it do little more than express a similar unease (I’m not even sure it’s stated which theatre it was at). And the infamous 1987 play ‘Perdition’ – which caused by far the most serious antisemitism scandal in the Royal Court’s history – simply isn’t mentioned. There was the opportunity to hold the Court – and its audience – seriously to account, but it’s largely passed upon.

The production feels rushed, with Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield’s initially energetic, inventive direction bogging down somewhere around the middle, with much of the second half static, the cast simply sat around a big table. You only have to look at when the interviews were conducted – May to July this year – to see that that play can’t have had a huge amount of time to percolate. 

It was rushed: Court boss Featherstone fast-tracked the play in response to the ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ controversy. Fair enough, but ‘Jews. In Their Own Words’ neither truly excoriates the Court, nor does it have the urgency it might if it had appeared during Corbyn’s tenure as LOTO. It’s a worthy play, entertaining, angering, heartfelt, well-performed and far less partisan than one might have thought from its initial billing. But I can’t help but feel that if the Royal Court had apologised more fulsomely about ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ at the time and given this play another year to develop, everybody would have been happier.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£12-£49. Runs 1hr 45min
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