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Review: JEWS. IN THEIR OWN WORDS, Royal Court

Review: JEWS. IN THEIR OWN WORDS, Royal Court

A self styled 'theatrical inquiry' into Antisemitism

Review: JEWS. IN THEIR OWN WORDS, Royal Court The most radical thing about Jews. In Their Own Words is that it exists. And it does.

A thinly veiled apology for the Royal Court's own history of antisemitism, everywhere from its marketing to the neon red letters emblazoned on the theatre's façade. And that's the point. What occurs on stage is almost redundant. As long as something happens the point is made and the Royal Court can rest easy at night knowing they are fighting the good fight.

Beyond the four walls of the Royal Court its importance cannot be understated. Taking a scalpel to left wing anti-racists who are blind to their own antisemitism, it slices the hypocrisy that has plagued the Labour party wide open. The blood and guts, Twitter trolls and vitriol, spill out for all to see festering in their grim nastiness.

It stands on the shoulders of books like David Rich's The Left's Jewish Problem and David Baddiel's Jews Don't Count. But crucially the latter two are books and this is a play. What can it bring to the table as a piece of art? The answer: nothing.

It relies heavily on the strengths of Verbatim theatre by presenting unflinchingly dramatised interviews from Jews of all backgrounds. Some interviewees are high profile; politician Luciana Berger and novelist Howard Jacobson. Some are not; a student, a Talmudist, a decorator. They discuss their experiences of antisemitism, inherited trauma, and coming to terms with history to create a tableau of the modern British Jewish experience.

But that theatrical nakedness guaranteed by Verbatim theatre is also its downfall: it can never be anything more than a staged documentary. Artistically vapid, it shares its DNA with episodes of Panorama or one of the aforementioned books on the subject. Writer Jonathan Freedland certainly has a sharp curatorial eye, but not an artistic one.

The content is left to speak for itself. At best the direction is a mostly bland garnish, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. At worst it is clunky always opting for the obvious moves like a truncated musical number about blaming the Jews for everything that would make even Mel Brooks cringe. Unlike with Brooks, the humour lacks grace or wit. But again, it doesn't matter. Jews. In Their Own Words exists. That is all it needs to do.

This is what is so disappointing. Narrative led theatre has an almost holy ability to force us to step into the shoes of somebody vastly different to us and feel something we possibly never would in our daily lives. The emotions we feel in the theatre can get under the skin and linger for life. Jews. In Their Own Words squanders this precious opportunity by opting to lecture rather than invite its audience to feel.

So why does Jews. In Their Own Words exist as a play? The answer is as obvious as it is lugubrious: Because of the Royal Court. Because of Rare Earth Mettle's Herschel Fink. Because of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children. Because of Jim Allen's Perdition. It cannot exist anywhere other than where it does.

The real question is what happens when the run is over? Will Jews. In Their Own Words be the cloth that wipes the Royal Court's reputational slate clean? Likely not. The play never transcends itself; it is nothing more than an elaborate apology.

Theatres are no strangers to ghosts, both on stage and off. Sadly, the ghost of Herschel Fink will still haunt for years to come.

Jews. In Their Own Words is at The Royal Court Theatre until 22 October.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

From This Author - Alexander Cohen

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