Jews. In Their Own Words. at the Royal Court Theatre
It would be a disservice to try and summarise what this theatrical inquiry is about in a paragraph – it is a multifaceted exploration of Jewish life in 2022. Directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, written by Jonathan Freedland and conceived by Tracy-Ann Oberman, this is an hour-and-40-minute lesson about what life has been like for the Jewish people since records began. It explores their historic misrepresentation and the unfortunate persecution they still face today.
Jews. In Their Own Words. begins with Hershel Fink (played by Alex Waldmann), a character at the centre of Rare Earth Mettle, which previously played at the Royal Court in 2021. He was seen as a money-grabbing manipulative billionaire and a stereotype, but, despite his name, he was not Jewish. The resultant controversy raised awareness of the deeply embedded antisemitism that permeates society and is referenced throughout this show. Bringing Jews. In Their Own Words. to the same theatre places it as a direct response.
This is perhaps one of the only real instances of theatricality, as what follows feels more like sitting in on a panel than seeing a play. The purposeful pockets of staging that break up the onslaught of abuse do not detract from the stories being told, and so there is only one thing to focus on: the harrowing persecution of the Jewish people. It forces the audience into the discussion, whether they want to be a part of it or not.
The script is taken (for the most part) verbatim from interviews. This is just a handful of people who have received a torrent of regular mistreatment in day-to-day life and on social media, which makes the thought of how much of it goes unnoticed all the more distressing. The show comes to educate the audience about how they, as a culture, are implicit in the continuing struggle of the Jewish people. However, where it falls short is in its implication of groups of people who are knowing aggressors, as it doesn’t do much more than that.
There are instances where Debbie Chazen (Margaret Hodge/Tammy Rothenberg) and Hemi Yeroham (Edwin Shuker/Joshua Bitensky) speak directly to the audience, giving accounts of the egregious things that have happened to the very real individuals who have lent their stories. They hone in on the reality of oppression in what is meant to be a progressive country. But, in other parts, gentiles are painted as one wholly antisemitic group, which could be seen as applying a similarly general and misinformed negativity to a varied people.
To speak in absolutes is to misinform, and, unfortunately, there are a few occurrences here, which detracts from the piece’s efficacy. It would have been great to see this social commentary transcend absolutism and educate without painting entire groups with the same brush. That being said, the overall feeling the audience is left with is that these particular Jewish people have had enough of the stereotyping and trauma they suffer on a day-to-day basis, and that now is the time to speak up. It is an eye-opener, revealing just how much our behaviours can harm those around us.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Jews. In Their Own Words. is at the Royal Court Theatre from 20th September until 22nd October 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch writer Jonathan Freedland talk about the show here: