Royal Court Theatre can right its wrongs to Jewish community with new play, says Tracy-Ann Oberman

Tracy-Ann Oberman
Tracy-Ann Oberman

The Royal Court Theatre has been “upsetting the Jewish community for a number of years”, but it can right its wrongs with a new play, Tracy-Ann Oberman has claimed.

The theatre, on London’s Sloane Square, is synonymous with liberal and left-wing plays and playwrights. However, in recent years it has been embroiled in a number of scandals sparking accusations of anti-Semitism, which have seen a play cancelled and funding withdrawn.

Now, Tracy-Ann Oberman, 56, a Jewish actress best known for her roles in Doctor Who, Eastenders and Friday Night Dinner, has created a new play with the aim of having a "trickle down effect to other progressive theatres", so that they can never  "turn around again and say we didn't really understand why that was offensive".

In an interview with The Telegraph to discuss her new play, written by Jonathan Freedland, "Jews. In Their Own Words", Oberman addressed the theatre’s past controversies - involving the plays: Rare Earth Mettle, Seven Jewish Children and Perdition - while insisting “it’s never too late” for the theatre to learn from its mistakes.

“The Royal Court has been controversial and quite upsetting for the Jewish community for a number of years,” she said.

“It goes all the way back to Perdition and Seven Jewish Children, and there's been a real sense that it's not a particularly safe place for debate and Jewish voices - like those interviewed for this [new] play - would never be heard at the Royal Court, let alone given a space on the stage,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

The timing of the play and her comments come as Jews are celebrating Rosh Hashanah, or the New Year, followed a few days later by the most sombre day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which is also centred on the importance of forgiveness.

Oberman’s comments regarding the theatre’s controversial past come following last year’s play, "Rare Earth Mettle", in which the Royal Court was forced to change the Jewish name of a billionaire character - who was not Jewish - 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 had 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.

'Searing and incisive play'

"Jews. In Their Own Words" is billed by the theatre as "a searing and incisive play, using verbatim interviews to expose the roots and damning legacy of anti-Semitism in Britain – found in the places where you’d least expect it".

Prior to the "Rare Earth Mettle affair", Oberman and Vicky Featherstone, the Court’s artistic director, who knew each other from studying drama at Manchester University in the mid-1980s, sat down to discuss the possibility of a play about English left-wing anti-Semitism.

Oberman said that the new play will “open up people's understanding of what anti-Semitism is, where it stems from, and why Rare Earth Mettle and plays like it were so offensive and upsetting”.

“And after this play has run,” she said, “if people choose to still carry on using this kind of vernacular and ignoring anti-Semitism, then it has to be seen as a conscious choice.”

Regarding the poignancy of "Jews. In Their Own Words" running ahead of Yom Kippur, Oberman said: “I never think it's too late, and I think it's brilliant that the Courts is doing it.

“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.”

'Heartfelt apology'

“This is a time that is the most spiritual in the Jewish year. It's about reassessment. It's about self-reflection. It's about taking stock, it's about owning up to wrongs and it's also about forgiveness and moving forward to live in a better way.”

“It’s a time of year about forgiveness,” she added. “It's a time of year for atonement. It's a time of year for reflection. It's a time of year for apology and for accepting apology - and heartfelt apology - and I genuinely think that the Court have had to go on a journey with this.

“They're been very brave in this production because they're facing up to things that they've done in the past and they’ve really had to go on a journey with this. And I think Vicky's been incredibly brave with the stuff that Jonathan and I have come up with, and about what we feel.

“But the fact that these voices and this subject matter are being told in this way is, I think, a huge sign of the Court reaching out to the community that has failed in a long time… So I think it’s very timely that it’s being done now.”

"Jews. In Their Own Words" is now running at the Royal Court Theatre until October 22.