Royal Court Theatre bombarded with anti-Semitic ‘abuse’ over Jewish play

Jews. In Their Own Words - Manuel Harlan
Jews. In Their Own Words - Manuel Harlan

A theatre’s new play about Jews has been bombarded with “abusive” anti-Semitic “harassment”.

The Royal Court Theatre, in London’s Sloane Square, is currently showing a play entitled, Jews. In Their Own Words. The production comes after the theatre was embroiled in a number of scandals in recent years, prompting accusations of anti-Semitism, most recently with last year’s Hershel Fink controversy.

The new play, written by The Guardian journalist, Jonathan Freedland, is based on an idea from Tracy-Ann Oberman, 56, a Jewish actress best known for her roles in Doctor Who, EastEnders and Friday Night Dinner, and has been widely viewed as the theatre’s attempts to right wrongs of the past.

However, the RCT has received a string of anti-Semitic trolling and “horrible abuse” as a result of the new play.

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

Mr Freedland told the newspaper that as soon as he published a piece about what the play was about “the trolls were out in force, not only on social media, filling up the Royal Court’s timeline, but in real life, harassing the theatre’s box office staff with phone calls, many of them abusive”.

“The team at the Royal Court were resilient in the face of that abuse, but some said that as horrible as it was, it was also very validating, confirming much what the play was saying and indeed the necessity of staging it.”

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

The play also addresses the RCT’s past controversies - involving the plays: Rare Earth Mettle, Seven Jewish Children and Perdition - which have seen a play cancelled and funding withdrawn.

The RCT is synonymous with liberal and left-wing plays and playwrights. Last year, the theatre was forced to change the Jewish name of a billionaire character - who was not Jewish - in the play Rare Earth Mettle after being accused of “unconscious bias” and anti-Semitism.

The London theatre apologised and changed the name of Hershel Fink, an Ashkenazi Jewish name, to Henry Finn. The use of a Jewish name, and his portrayal as a billionaire with malign intentions, sparked accusations that the theatre was perpetrating insulting tropes and stereotypes about Jews.

It also emerged that the theatre had dismissed a string of warnings and concerns from both those involved in the play and those outside it, that the naming of the main character could be considered anti-Semitic.

Rare Earth Mettle came just over a decade after the theatre’s 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, written by Caryl Churchill, one of the most revered of Royal Court playwrights, was publicised as a response to the many Palestinians killed in Gaza in 2008-9 during Israel’s war with Hamas. The short work’s content and title allegedly implied that all Jews were complicit in the deaths.

Furthermore, back in 1987, Perdition, a play by Jim Allen, premiered at the theatre in a production directed by Ken Loach. It was abandoned because of protests and criticism by historians over its controversial and tendentious claims concerning alleged collaboration during the war between the leaders of the Zionist movement in Hungary and the Nazis.

Angry backlash

The new RCT production has also been hit by an angry backlash from Ms Churchill, and Dominic Cooke, the director of Seven Jewish Children, who wrote a letter to The Guardian last week criticising the “outrageous” notion that their play could be considered anti-Semitic.

Following the premiere of the new play, The Telegraph published an interview with Ms Oberman, in which she said that the RCT “has been controversial and quite upsetting for the Jewish community for a number of years”, but insisted that “it’s never too late” for the theatre to learn from its mistakes.

She added: “And I think that the trickle-down effect of the Court doing it means that every other progressive institution, educational, theatre or otherwise that considers itself to be aware, anti-racist, and pro-rights will hopefully take on board what they've heard here will understand anti-Semitism a bit more, and will act on it and can never turn around again and say, well, we didn't really understand why that was offensive.

“This play sets it out incredibly clearly as to why it is offensive. And where it comes from.”

A spokesperson for the RCT declined to comment.