Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism explored at theatre forced to apologise to Jewish people

The new play takes place in Roald Dahl's house just before publication of The Witches
The new play takes place in Roald Dahl's house just before publication of The Witches - Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images

A play exploring Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism is being staged at the theatre that was previously forced to apologise to the Jewish community.

The Royal Court Theatre, in London’s Sloane Square, will host Mark Rosenblatt’s drama Giant about the children’s author and the repercussions of his comments.

The new play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, spans an afternoon at Dahl’s family home and is billed as “a complicated portrait of a fiendishly charismatic icon” that “explores with dark humour the difference between considered opinion and dangerous rhetoric”.

It comes after the theatre was embroiled in an anti-Semitism scandal in 2021 over the play Rare Earth Mettle, which was accused of offensively stereotyping Jews through the character of a manipulative billionaire capitalist named Hershel Fink. The theatre later changed the character’s name and apologised.

Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, said that he hoped the theatre “has learnt the lessons of previous failings in this area” with its new production.

He told The Telegraph: “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with portraying an anti-Semite on stage, as long as his appalling anti-Jewish prejudice is properly and sensitively represented and not glossed over or excused.”

Improve record

A spokesman for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said they hoped that Giant is the Royal Court’s attempt to “improve their record on anti-Semitism.”

She said: “Following the ‘Hershel Fink’ controversy at the Royal Court, the theatre rightly apologised. We hope that this new production is an attempt by the theatre to improve their record on anti-Semitism and will not add to past problems.”

Giant is set shortly before Dahl published his novel The Witches, and explores the popular author coming under fire for his public anti-Semitic views connected to a 1983 article.

The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, West London
The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, West London - Jansos / Alamy Stock Photo

Dahl, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, also said in an interview months before his death that he was “certainly anti-Israel and I have become anti-Semitic”.

His family issued an apology in 2020 for his anti-Semitism, saying that his past remarks were “incomprehensible” to them.

Published on the author’s website signed by the Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the rights of the author’s characters and stories, it said that they deeply apologise for the “lasting and understandable hurt”.

Giant, which will run in the Royal Court Theatre from late September to mid-November, will grapple with the author’s remarks through performances by award-winning actors John Lithgow as Dahl and Elliot Levey as Dahl’s publisher, Tom Maschler.

According to publicity material, the play depicts the author being “rocked by an unexpectedly explosive confrontation,” which means he is “forced to choose: make a public apology or risk his name and reputation”.

It is Rosenblatt’s debut stage production, but the writer and director has previously made short films that were inspired by the aftermath of his family’s Holocaust survival.

He said: “I really hope Giant gives Royal Court audiences an uncomfortably funny, urgent and provocative night in the theatre.”

Dahl’s legacy

Speaking about Dahl’s legacy, the spokesman for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “While Roald Dahl’s stories entertain and delight millions of children, and should continue to do so, it is important that people know about the darker side of the man.”

In 2022, the theatre was bombarded with “abusive” anti-Semitic “harassment” while showing a play entitled, Jews. In Their Own Words.

It was widely viewed as the theatre’s attempts to right wrongs of the past but was received with a strong of antisemitic trolling and “horrible abuse”.

The Jewish Chronicle reported at the time that some complainants harassed the theatre’s box office staff on the phone, while others used Twitter to accuse it of betrayal for showcasing Jewish voices.

Jews. In Their Own Words analysed both historic and contemporary anti-Semitism through actors playing 12 real Jewish people, including Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning novelist, and Luciana Berger, a former Labour MP.

The Royal Court has been contacted for comment.