‘I’m not calling JK Rowling a terf’: Inside the play that has Edinburgh running scared

JK Rowling with (L-R) Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson at the 2001 World Premier of Harry Potter
JK Rowling with (L-R) Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson at the 2001 World Premier of Harry Potter - Ian Jones

“Friends keep messaging to ask if I’m ok,” says the playwright Joshua Kaplan. “The other day [the far right US website] Breitbart called me a woke fascist child-mutilating supporter. No matter how much I try to keep the narrative clean, people wilfully misinterpret it.”

Kaplan, 45, is the man behind what is being regarded as the most provocative play to hit the Edinburgh Fringe in years. A speculative comedy about JK Rowling, inspired by her fall out with the Harry Potter actors Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint over Rowling’s gender-critical views, Terf was passed over by five leading Fringe venues before finding a home at the Ian McKellen Theatre, where it will premiere in August.

Because of the backlash the play has received from gender-critical groups who accuse the play of misogyny, particularly, says the play’s producer Barry Church-Woods, on Mumsnet, Kaplan has been forced to adjust the play’s title – it was originally called Terf C*** in reference to one of the hashtags that has been levied against Rowling by trans activists. This week it was reported that the production is struggling to find someone to play Rowling after 90 actresses apparently turned down the part.

Yet Kaplan is at pains to stress that Terf isn’t an attack on JK Rowling at all. “I wrote it because I was fascinated by the rift that emerged between Rowling and the Harry Potter actors, who know they wouldn’t be who they are without her,” says Kaplan, who freely admits to being a Harry Potter obsessive. “Each character in the play has a view in the play and each of them express it. But I don’t drill down into the arguments. Instead, I am fascinated by the way everyone involved in this debate through social media is invariably navel-gazing. There is a narcissism about the way we air our opinions on this topic online. There is very little interrogation.”

Terf, which is entirely fictionalised, although it does incorporate real tweets, is a technicolour satire that imagines the consequences if Radcliffe, Watson and Grint were to stage “an intervention” against Rowling because of her ideological viewpoints. Having read the first half (the second is currently being workshopped) it seems to me to be both an impressively even-handed and wickedly funny caricature of all the leading players – Rowling is diabolically acerbic; Watson is a sanctimonious virtue-signaller with a shaky handle on the facts; Daniel is an intellectually sceptical alcoholic. “You have no appreciation for the world that made you possible,” Rowling says to Radcliffe at one point. “Your generation treats propaganda as if it were gospel, opinion as if it were fact, and god forbid someone should even hint that maybe up is not down, you bravely silence them with 280 character smears.” The script, Kaplan is quick to confirm, has been fully legalled.

''I would not be facing any of this if I put the play on in America': US scriptwriter Joshua Kaplan, 45, pictured at Soho Theatre, London
''I would not be facing any of this if I put the play on in America': US scriptwriter Joshua Kaplan, 45, pictured at Soho Theatre, London - Rii Schroer

Yet so divisive a figure has Rowling become, and so febrile the debate between trans rights and gender criticism, that many people have already made up their minds about Terf without having seen it. None of the Fringe venues, for instance, had read the script before passing on it, a situation Kaplan describes as “dispiriting”.

Apparently, all five feared the production would be disrupted by protests from gender-critical groups and worried that they wouldn’t have the security to deal with them. Moreover, those attacking the play online have assumed that the play’s title reflects the play’s view on Rowling.

Yet, says Kaplan, nothing could be further from the truth. “I’m not calling Rowling that,” says Kaplan. “Instead I’m trying to get people to confront the sort of language they use against her. But I accept it’s hard for people to understand that idea without context. And I can see that people made an assumption about misogyny over the original title, which was not unreasonable. That’s why we changed it.”

It’s also not true, he says, that 90 actors have turned down the role of Rowling. “We only started casting two weeks ago!” he says in bewilderment. “No actress has turned down the role because of concerns about playing her.” In fact, Texan actress Laura Kay Bailey was cast yesterday, as was Australian actress Trelawny Kean as Watson. Instead it is another character altogether who is causing a casting headache.

“There is a character called X who we want to be played by a transgender actor, and we are having terrible trouble casting that. It’s not because trans actors say they fear for their career. Instead, they say they fear for their safety.”

Church-Woods, 48, who was also head of Venues and Companies at the Fringe between 2008 and 2015, argues that harassment and artist targeting at the Edinburgh Fringe is getting worse. “The Fringe is famously a breeding ground for political provocation and activism. But people are becoming a lot more sensitive, with hair-trigger responses to things they don’t agree with, without necessarily having thought about it very much.” He points to the show Drag Queen Story Hour [in which the drag queen Aida H D read stories to children] at the Assembly Roxy.

'People have hair-trigger responses to things without having thought about them very much': Barry Church-Woods, the play's producer
'People have hair-trigger responses to things without having thought about them very much': Barry Church-Woods, the play's producer

“People stood outside calling drag queens kiddie groomers,” he says. (It’s worth pointing out that the gender-critical comedian Graham Linehan had his stand-up show cancelled altogether last year by Leith Arches following protests from the LGBTQ community.) Kaplan is not on social media, so hasn’t been personally targeted, but Church-Woods has received what he describes as “vile and profoundly upsetting” abuse when, at the weekend, protesters took over a Facebook post of his in tribute to his dead sister.

Kaplan is wary of expressing his own views on Rowling. “I fully expect to be monstered by both sides, to be honest,” he says. “I imagine there will be plenty of people who say I am not standing up for trans rights.” Still, he is conspicuously careful throughout our interview to not endorse Rowling’s position.

When I ask if he thinks she is brave, he says: “It’s always brave to say something that you don’t think will be welcome. If you truly believe it, and you come out and say it, that’s always a bravery. What I think we can all agree on, though, is that some of her tweets in recent years have become vitriolic.”

'Some of her tweets in recent years have become vitriolic': JK Rowling
'Some of her tweets in recent years have become vitriolic': JK Rowling - Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

Church-Woods is more forthcoming. “The question is how has Rowling gone from this person who was loved by everyone and a champion for those who are different to someone who is cornered by her beliefs. Some of what she says does real harm to people.” I point out that Rowling has received the most dreadful abuse including death threats. “And that is appalling,” he says. “No one deserves that regardless of what their politics or beliefs are. I can’t stress enough that Josh and I are only for freedom of speech.”

Kaplan prefers to regard the Rowling row as predominantly a manifestation of a curious social obsession rather than a slinging match between those with opposing views on gender identification. “The amount of attention that is spent on this, whether I think Rowling has done good or not, has taken up an extraordinary amount of space. If the message of the play is anything, it’s ‘why are we having such a huge fight over less than one per cent of the population?’

“As a gay American, I definitely wanted people to talk about gay marriage. Yet the 2004 election in the US became all about gay marriage. There are so many other things we need to care about.” He regards trans issues as a peculiarly British preoccupation. “I would not be facing any of this if I put the play on in America [Terf received a closed reading in New York earlier in the year; there were no protests]. Trans rights are not a platform issue for Biden and Trump. Yet they seem fairly central to the election debate here.”

Kaplan trained as a lawyer before taking an MFA in screenwriting and has spent the last 10 years in writers’ rooms – his most recent screen credit is the 2022 crime drama series Tokyo Vice. He is friendly but notably nervous. What matters to him above anything is that the play is not seen to reflect a single point of view. “Too much art these days tells people what to think. But my job is not to tell people what I believe but to reflect back what they believe, and to make them question it. That’s what art is meant to do.”

Terf runs at the Edinburgh Fringe August 2-25; edfringe.com