In February I wrote a PJM column about Caryl Churchill’s Royal Court Theatre playlet Seven Jewish Children, which I felt had crossed the line from intelligent discussion of the Israeli-Arab conflict to an uncomfortable realm of blaming the Jews for the ills of the region.
Now Richard Stirling, a non-Jewish actor and author (he wrote a best-selling biography of Julie Andrews) has compiled a courageous rebuttal, having been distressed listening to anti-Jewish comments by audience members in the bar the night he attended the Churchill play. Stirling has told the press he felt someone should reply to what he saw as the historically flawed Churchill assault on Jewish, not Israeli, history and wrote to the theater. They refused to stage his rebuttal. Dominic Cook of the Court arrogantly argued that there was never a necessity to refute King Lear or A Doll’s House.
The brave New End Theatre in Hampstead has now stepped in to stage Stirling’s Seven Other Children. It is a short but powerful tableau of Jewish history, depicted in successive stages of world events since the end of World War II.
Stirling’s play opens with an aggressive rebuke by a “representative of the Royal Court Theatre”; the actress in this role then seamlessly melds into one of the Jewish characters, a refugee from the Holocaust. What a brilliant juxtaposition! In the Churchill scenario the adults spoke to a Jewish child and used “Tell her …” at the beginning of sentences, expounding on the playwright’s assumed views Jews hold about Palestinians. In Stirling’s play the characters, all adults, use “Ask him …” to disseminate a long cycle of horrific world events in the centuries-old persecution of Jews.
The play addresses the abuse of Jewish schoolchildren down the ages, the loss of homes in the European Holocaust, and the need of Jews and Israelis to fight back. The play makes an important point about the young men of the massive Arab armies perennially signing up to fight the tiny Jewish state and the desire of Israelis to share the land despite perpetual war and terror from Arab neighbors.
In a scene that takes place in the 1960s in a Palestinian school, the students are taught that Jews do terrible things with the blood of Arab children — a reference to the treacherous medieval blood libel, which is still promulgated in the Middle East today.
Stirling attempts balance by expressing the despair of Palestinians under Israeli occupation but never drifts into the Churchillian — as in Caryl, with apologies to Sir Winston — litany of accusations that portrays Israel as the sole aggressor.
There is one searing monologue near the end of the play that expresses the most appalling of anti-Semitic rhetoric. This monologue took my breath away with its final line, “Ask him if Hitler had the wrong idea.”