'Jews. In Their Own Words.' review — a series of remarkable testimonies and reflections on British Judaism

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

When is a play not a play? When it’s the extended exercise in expiation offered by Jews. In Their Own Words, the verbatim play from Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland that brings self-flagellation – alongside some remarkable testimonials - to the London stage.

The given venue, the Royal Court, is significant: this is the hugely important new writing playhouse that got into hot water late last year via a play, Rare Earth Mettle, that featured a central character whose name, Herschel Fink, was deemed to be anti-Semitic (The character was not actually Jewish and his name was changed prior to the actual production.) That outcry followed similar charges surrounding earlier Court plays like Perdition and Seven Jewish Children, the second of which was penned by this theatre’s mightiest writer of many years standing, Caryl Churchill.

So along comes this 100-minute, interval-free composite of reports from the frontline of British Judaism, at a time of soaring anti-Semitism (the production offers data to amplify that fact) and the feeling, especially amongst the left, that Jews are increasingly imperilled.

All one has to do is listen to the narrative of Luciana Berger, the onetime Labour MP who speaks candidly of surrendering to bile and of not being able “to do the job I was born to do”, to reel under the import of the stories being told. Now if only their presentation felt like an actual play.

We begin with the unexpected sight of the actor Alex Waldmann tumbling mostly undressed on to the stage to confront us from the outset with the elephant in the room — namely, Herschel Fink. By way of atoning for that lapse in judgment, the Court stage, Waldmann tells us, will proffer a cross-section of Jews via edited transcripts from interviews conducted between this past May and July.

Seven actors play 12 interviewees, including the actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, whose idea this was in the first place. (We hear, among other things, of Oberman in audition for one Jane Austen adaptation or another being told she doesn’t look the part; Oberman knows without it being spelled out what that comment really means.)

Some of the respondents are well-known — Berger, Oberman, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, the novelist Howard Jacobson: we’re informed multiple times that Jacobson won the Booker prize, when one such reminder would suffice. No less compelling are the Baghdad-born Edwin Shuker, the businessman and philanthropist, and Phillip Abrahams, a north London decorator who is informed by a Stoke Newington shopkeeper that the Jews spread Coronavirus via Coca Cola; Shuker, meanwhile, recalls being derided as “Jewboy” whilst a student at Leeds University.

Jacobson speaks of the word “Jew” being hatefully deployed as a verb (as in, “Don’t Jew me”) even as projections separate the evening into various sections to do with money, blood, or the particular depredations of the British left that is the Court’s natural constituency. Jeremy Corbyn comes in for considerable attack, not least via a reminder of the offensive East London mural — since-removed — that he sanctioned under the guise of free speech.

Lest the result devolve into so many talking heads, we get a stage full of sliding screens displaying the vitriolic tweets that seem to be common currency on every front just now. There are periodic historical recreations of some of the more ignominious episodes in British Jewry and a fairly awful ensemble number – satirically intended – in which a high-kicking chorus line opines in unison “it was the Jews that did it”. A dubious idea, this interlude really needs a Mel Brooks or Tom Lehrer to make it land.

The cumulative impact can’t help but elicit tears from an empathic observer, and the excellent Debbie Chazen seemed visibly moved by her own recitation of the fate of Margaret Hodge’s Austrian grandmother: a grievous memory amongst the many that come tumbling forth.

Hemi Yeroham is notably affecting first as Shuker and then as Joshua Bitensky, a Talmudist suffering from PTSD. So, too, are Rachel-Leah Hosker, playing Hannah Rose and asking for “a normal life – is that too much to ask”, and Billy Ashcroft as the mixed-race journalist Stephen Bush whose heritage finds him identifying, deadpan, as “this new exciting third thing”.

Still, one has to wonder whether the same material might not have worked more forcefully as a series of podcasts not requiring the actor-as-intermediary, or as a TV programme allowing for less filleted reckonings with both past and present. Horrific though they are to see, the pileup of online toxicity doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know, and the literary nods towards Fagin and Shylock trawl familiar ground; Chaucer is put to far more intriguing use.

You exit the playhouse shaken by a reminder of the hatred that continues as ever to do harm alongside the nagging feeling that this play itself may act as a salve to the Court’s collective conscious while wondering what effect it will have on society at large.

Jews. In Their Own Words. is at the Royal Court to 22 October. Book Jews. In Their Own Words tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Louisa Clein, Debbie Chazen, Alex Waldmann, Hemi Yeroham, Billy Ashcroft, Steve Furst, Rachel-Leah Hosker (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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