In late February, I could hardly ignore the headlines over the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s eight-minute play Seven Jewish Children. Seeing it, I found the production immaculate but the content dangerously one-sided to anyone not convinced of its political or even humanitarian premise.
In less than ten minutes, Ms Churchill conflated criticism of the government of Israel with polemic about Jews in general. The play, after all, was called Seven Jewish Children, not Seven Israeli Children. And the connection between pre-WWII Jews as victims of the Nazis and present day Israelis as outright oppressors of the Middle East was one that I, a non-Jew, was not prepared to make without a great deal more debate.
I questioned the Royal Court Theatre’s mounting of this show at its own expense, without any hope of income (tickets were free), to benefit a charity of Caryl Churchill’s choosing. In the light of Ms Churchill’s statement that the piece was “a political event, not just a theatre event”, the management was lining up behind her activism as well as her artistry. So be it. Ms Churchill, whose work I generally find illuminating, has a right to her opinion. However, it seemed iniquitous that the Royal Court should then define the parameters of the debate. When I wrote to Dominic Cooke, asking him to programme a response, I had a letter (from which I am not allowed to quote) citing works by Shakespeare and Ibsen as examples of how theatre cannot stand on rules of balance. This is an argument with which I normally agree, but which I do not accept can be sustained over Ms Churchill’s eight-minute polemic.
There was also the suggestion that Seven Jewish Children was challenging in its own right. But when I attended the Royal Court, it was to sit among members of an audience who, from their comments in the foyer afterwards, were there not to have their minds stretched but their prejudices confirmed. And that’s not good enough.
The associate director of the Royal Court, Ramin Gray, has said he would “think twice” about staging a play critical of Islam, adding: “You’d worry that if you cause offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy.” Quite what else the theatre has done with Ms Churchill’s play is difficult to see.
I’m sick of this. I’m sick that we, as predominately white Westernised theatre practitioners, continue to feel so adventurous about attacking undoubted problems within the Christian and Jewish traditions, yet remain so supine about the issue of the day, the elephant in the room: anything that relates to zealous ferment within other religious communities.
The Royal Court imagines it has addressed this matter by programming the very charming comedy Shades by the gifted young Alia Bano. This hardly constitutes the multi-cultural balance Mr Cooke suggests it does, even when elsewhere he has, as previously mentioned, denied such balance is needed at all.
My eight-minute play Seven Other Children is currently running at the New End Theatre, Hampstead. A theatrical response to Caryl Churchill and the Royal Court Theatre, it has a splendid cast of nine international actors, of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular backgrounds. My response may not be to everyone’s liking, or indeed anyone’s. But it will have to do until a better one comes along.
Seven Other Children continues at the New End theatre until 16 May 2009