Jews. In Their Own Words, Royal Court, review: a Leftie mea culpa that leaves a lot to be desired

The cast of Jews. In Their Own Words - Manuel Harlan
The cast of Jews. In Their Own Words - Manuel Harlan

Hats off to the Royal Court for this theatrical act of mea culpa even if the intent is more admirable than the execution. Last year, the veteran new-writing theatre found itself in a right old mess after mounting a play featuring a billionaire businessman by the name of Hershel Fink.

Critics said that, by giving the billionaire a Jewish name, the theatre was perpetrating anti-Semitic tropes. The name was hastily changed before opening night, but the damage was done: a left-leaning institution that prides itself on countering racism had revealed a gaping blind spot when it came to racism against Jews.

Now comes the response – a verbatim play by the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland based on an idea by the actress Tracy-Ann Oberman and featuring first-person testimonies from 12 Jewish people, from former Labour MP Luciana Berger to a builder, a social worker and veteran politician Margaret Hodge.

The framing conceit – how Fink came to be so named - gives way to a whistle-stop tour through 1,000 years of persecution that emphasises in particular how anti-Semitic tropes around money and blood libels have been perpetuated, perhaps most dangerously through popular culture – be it Shylock, Fagin or, yes, Caryl Churchill's 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, premiered by the Royal Court.

Yet Freedland's chosen format, which relies exclusively on stitched together personal testimony, isn't adequate to the task in hand. The real subject here is the prevalence of anti-Semitism among the self-styled non-racist liberal left, a grievous hypocrisy exposed most blatantly during Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party.

The testimonies from Berger and Hodge, who has been the MP for Barking, in Greater London, since 1994, on the abuse they suffered during this time are appalling. But Freedland's scattershot, superficial approach never gets to grips with the pernicious sliding scale between foul-mouthed Labour party members sending openly racist rape threats to female Jewish MPs and Court employees not knowing that the characterisation of Fink is racist, and which implicates more of us than we might care to think.

For personal testimony, however emotive, is a limited theatrical tool. Yes, there are harrowing revelations here – the Jewish doctor who chose a “portable” career because the need to flee is buried deep in her DNA; Oberman, who is also represented, being told in an audition she didn't “look” quite right for Pride and Prejudice.

Yet, theatre thrives most of all on argument and provocation and there simply isn't enough of that here.  Audrey Sheffield and Vicky Featherstone's production makes limp-fisted efforts to enliven the verbatim format but we're still left with a frustratingly diffuse patchwork of meandering personal stories. Kudos to the Court for calling itself out on stage, but there's a better play to be written on the subject than this.

Until Oct 22. Tickets: 020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com