Jews. In Their Own Words review – appalling revelations in a gallop through centuries of bigotry

Royal Court, London
Jonathan Freedland has turned 180,000 words drawn from interviews into a potent verbatim play about antisemitism and the blindspots of liberal institutions. The results feel urgent – but is its remit simply too large?

This verbatim drama about antisemitism was, ironically, born out of an instance of antisemitism in the theatre now staging it, and it opens with a reference to that episode. A man emerges out of a crackle of light, invoking the birth of humankind, to be told he is Hershel Fink, the accidentally Jewish-sounding name initially given to the avaricious billionaire in the play Rare Earth Mettle, produced at the Royal Court in 2021.

Based on an idea by the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman and written by the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, the play aims to examine antisemitism inside liberal institutions such as this venue and more emphatically the political left that draw themselves as the enlightened, anti-racist “good guys” but harbour unconscious bigotries.

It is a playful start to a production, directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, that comes with bold theatricality, songs and wry jokes, albeit underpinned by deadly serious inquiry into how it is that this most ancient form of hate still persists. Jews takes us from that opening riff across centuries of prejudice and persecution, as comprehensively as is possible in under two hours. Freedland has put in diligent research: 180,000 words drawn from interviews and 12 voices that range from eminent Jewish figures – Margaret Hodge, Howard Jacobson and Oberman among them – to everyday members of British society whose accounts are just as powerful, and all of whom are played by seven nimbly alternating actors.

Touching many bases … Jews. In Their Own Words.
Touching many bases … Jews. In Their Own Words. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It brings a welter of important, appalling and too-often ignored realities, experiences, arguments, to the stage, but ends up as rather a gallop across centuries of terrain, packing in too much without unpacking it fully enough and touching so many bases that some parts risk sounding like soundbites.

Its theatricality does not always land and feels as if it is trying too hard to give the verbatim form a dramatic edge, enacting medieval mystery style mimes while characters recount the origins of antisemitic tropes, from the myth of the moneylending Jew to the lurid fantasy of blood libel (which ties Jewish ritual with the blood of non-Jewish children).

The play gains in power when this is dropped for a plainer, stiller form of storytelling, around a table, one character speaking after another – of a swastika being etched into their family car, of growing up in Iraq and listening to radio dramas with offensive Jewish stereotypes, of casual but heinous abuse in schools, taxicabs, offices. These are more distilled moments, filled with potency, and we wish for less so that we can have more, with one argument or experience given its fuller due.

The play’s larger framework somewhat undercuts its central purpose to focus on leftwing antisemitism too. It shows us just how ubiquitous this form of racial bigotry is, way beyond party politics, although we certainly get alarming accounts from Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and former Labour shadow minister, Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) about the inaction and obfuscation they experienced, along with vile intersections between misogyny and antisemitism on social media.

Blood libel examined … Jews. In Their Own Words.
Blood libel examined … Jews. In Their Own Words. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

But the drama much more compellingly shows how antisemitism pervades across culture, history and is embedded in language itself. Stephen Bush (Billy Ashcroft) makes a valuable point about the liberal left’s characteristic suspicion of money and power – a loaded association given long-held antisemitic conspiracy theories around Jews running the media and holding all wealth and power. Other anti-left arguments sound more generalising though: that the left supports the underdog and so stopped supporting Israel after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war (“The sentimental left … cannot sympathise with anyone who wins”). The Guardian, it is suggested, is guilty of the same.

Bush points out too how the left does not imagine Jews to be Black and it is unfortunate, in light of that statement, that there are limited insights into being a Black Jewish Briton here – Bush is the only character of mixed heritage, though there is the story of one Iraqi refugee, Edwin Shuker (Hemi Yeroham).

There is an immensely powerful but all too brief look at inherited trauma and the legacy of the Holocaust, with mournful stories of packed suitcases left by the door decades after the second world war and a paediatrician who speaks of having a “portable career” in case she has to flee, which is utterly heartbreaking.

It introduces Israel as a subject but eschews it too. “What’s a foreign conflict got to do with me?” says one character and others speak about how they are constantly being called upon for their opinions on the Middle East conflict. The play resuscitates an old charge against Caryl Churchill’s contentious 2009 play, Seven Jewish Children, written shortly after Israel’s bombing of Gaza (which killed more than 200 Palestinian children). Jacobson (Steve Furst) remembers seeing it and feeling as if the audience was “being encouraged to boo the Jews”. We hear how the play invokes myths around blood libel, as well as conflating the term “Jewish” with “Israeli” (Churchill and her play’s director, Dominic Cooke, have robustly defended the play against these charges).

Alarming accounts … Debbie Chazen voices the words of politician Margaret Hodge.
Alarming accounts … Debbie Chazen voices the words of politician Margaret Hodge. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

“Criticise what you want – the prime minister, the settlements policy, this war, this military strategy,” says one character. “Most Jews would agree with you. But don’t do it in a way which criticises the Jewishness of Israel.” The opacity of this statement begs more discussion which we do not get, along with tentative statements on the intersection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism which leaves the discussion dangling. Instead, the drama steps away from exploring how protest and pro-Palestinian sympathies can legitimately be expressed by Jewish voices in public, and art, which was, according to Cooke, the point of his play.

Ultimately, its probing intentions are there but its remit is simply too large, powering on to the next subject and then the next. But there is, even in this, a sense of a bigger, valid, anxiety: this feels like a play that is being given a rare chance to air its urgent and desperately important issues, making it feverish to cover all the ground in the time it has been afforded.

At the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London until 22 October.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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