Review by Daz Gale
Antisemitism is being spoken about in relation to the Royal Court theatre this week… not for the first time, though at least this time it’s for the right reason. Following outrage regarding their choice to name a character Hershel Fink in a play last year, a new play is tackling antisemitism, and rather fittingly it’s playing at the very same theatre.
Jews. In Their Own Words. stems from an idea from Tracy Ann-Oberman. As the title suggests, the show features dialogue taken verbatim from interviews with 12 Jewish people earlier this year. Tied together with writing from Jonathan Freedland, what follows is a raw and unfiltered approach to how Jews are seen, not just in the media, but in everyday life in a play that bills itself as a theatrical enquiry.
Starting with a hilarious scene centred around a character named, you guessed it, Hershel Fink. Jews. In Their Own Words starts on a high before introducing its main narrative structure as a cast of seven portray 12 different people who were interviewed. What then follows is a strange and inconsistent structure where the extreme highs are followed by the lows. More like a lecture or a TED talk rather than a play in itself, it features a mix of monologues and characters interacting with each other, all the while with the names of who they are representing flashing up to help with the actors playing more than one character.
It is a slow burn of a show with the first 30 minutes taking too long to introduce everyone and ease into the serious issues it is portraying, with topics split into sections such as Money and Blood, challenging the way Jewish people are stereotyped and spoken about with dangerous myths and misconceptions
The narrative structure can prove a bit too jumpy initially, with the several uses of stories being acted out deliberately amateurish in the background perhaps not landing in the way that was expected. An ill-advised musical number in the middle of the number ‘It Was The Jews That Did It’ seems to be in its own completely different show and not only feels completely out of place, but feels distintly inferior to the rest of the show.
Where Jews. In Their Own Words really comes into its own is where characters are allowed to breathe and tell their stories unrushed and naturally. This happens more towards the second half of the show and leads to the more memorable and emotive moments, with Louisa Clein’s extended monologue as Labour MP Luciana Berger and her interactions with Jeremy Corbyn providing an undoubted standout, albeit due to a disturbing story. Hemi Yeroham similarly gets the chance to tell a story with instances like this proving truly captivating and making me long for more stories like this. Sadly, the short bursts of each character are far more frequent and far less effective.
The cast of seven are truly sensational, effortlessly transitioning from one character to the other. Louisa Clein has the unenviable of task of playing the shows co-creator Tracy Ann Oberman, while Debbie Chazen is a complete revelation in her turns as Tammy Rothenberg, and particularly Margaret Hodge. Steve Furst gives a wonderful performance as Phillip Abrahams while the cast are completed by Billy Ashcroft, Alex Waldmann and Rachel-Leah Hosker.
Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, the versatile way the actors tell their stories on stage is always interesting to watch, even if it is always most effective when it is simply the actor and the story with props not a necessity. Design from Georgia de Grey and video design from Reuben Cohen creates a clever way of projecting visual aids including tweets and newspaper articles, while lighting from Rory Beaton evokes a dark and unnerving setting which really drives home the harsh realities of the words the actors are saying.
Jews. In Their Own Words is an interesting show and definitely an important one. When it is simple, it is utterly spellbinding to watch with moments providing a truly emotional response, sometimes even recoiling in horror at the things that are being spoken. However, it is uneven in tone and narrative structure throughout which sometimes can take you out of the moment and lessen the impact of several other stories.
While its rawness is definitely part of the deliberate approach to hammering home these serious issues, a bit of tweaking to create a more cohesive structure wouldn’t go amiss. Still though, the message this show is telling makes it a vital piece of theatre, and the fact it is playing in the very same venue some of these issues stemmed from makes it all the more crucial. This is a show people should see, if only to challenge their own views.
Jews. In Their Own Words plays at Royal Court until October 22nd. Tickets from https://royalcourttheatre.com
Photos by Manuel Harlan