Writer: Jonathan Freedland from an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Directors: Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield
Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play is, of course, a response to the Hershel Fink scandal of last year when a Royal Court playwright gave that name to one of their characters, a corrupt billionaire. While the play wasn’t pulled, the character’s name was changed. But Hershel lives on the cultural imagination and in the opening minutes of Jews. In Their Own Words.
For the rest of the play, seven actors speak the words of 12 people Freedland interviewed earlier this year. One is a social worker, another is a taxi-driver. Quite a few are well known. We have actor Tracy-Ann Oberman who came up with the concept, Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, MP Margaret Hodge and ex-MP Luciana Berger. Over the next 100 minutes they discuss the dangerous myths about Jews that have perpetuated for centuries.
The depiction of a Jew as rich, and miserly can be seen in works by Shakespeare and Dickens and Jews were often seen as murderers in Medieval times, killing children for their blood. While the images of Merchant of Venice’s Shylock and Oliver Twist’s Fagin are now familiar anti-Semitic tropes, it comes a surprise to learn that Dracula with his origins in the East and his desire for human blood could be seen, too, as Jewish, an attribute that would add to his monstrosity.
The first half of the play is speedy, with each character only delivering a few lines before the next joins in with their own observation about the meaning of Zionism or the way every Jewish person is seen to be responsible for any Israeli misdoing. Despite the set, a series of screens and tables, and the few scenes of Medieval Theatre, where the actors present executions of Jews in the past, Freedland’s play lacks a dramatic heft. His play is subtitled a theatrical inquiry but Instead sometimes feels more like a fascinating Ted Talk.
It’s not until towards the end of the play, when characters are given more time in the spotlight, that the potential for drama is met. Luciana Berger’s story of calling out ex-Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn for his support of an anti-Semitic mural deserves its own theatrical production, where more details of the controversy can be filled in. Likewise, the Twitter hate that followed Margaret Hodge’s disclosure that she keeps a packed suitcase in her house ready in case she has to flee. The trolling was atrocious, some of it by the left, and did little to assuage Hodge’s fear that anti-Semitism is everywhere in Britain.
All the acting is understated and so it is useful that the names of the interviewees are projected on the wall when their words are being spoken by the actors. Particularly good are Debbie Chazen who gives Hodge a non-nonsense bluster undercut by empathy and Louisa Clein who plays Berger’s frustration with Corbyn perfectly. It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear more of Steve Furst’s taxi driver who is told in his local shop that coronavirus is spread by Jews by the means of Coca-Cola.
It’s a restrained evening and there is no shouting and no real polemics from his subjects. But overall it could do with more anger; this response to Hershel Fink feels a little safe.
Runs until 22 October 2022