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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Written by Jonathan Freedland based on an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman and Co-Directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, Designer Georgia de Grey, Lighting Designer Rory Beaton, Music and Sound Designers Ben & Max Ringham, Video Designer Reuben Cohen, Movement Director Adi Gortler, Musical Director Candida Caldicot, Dramaturg Tommo Fowler

Stage Manager Tamsin Withers & Deborah Machin, Deputy Stage Manager Katie Stephen, ASM Lottie Denby, Sound Operator Florence Hand, Dresser Amy Trigg, Production Video Engineer Mike Higgs, Video Programmer Dylan Marsh, Set Built by Royal Court Stage Department.

Royal Court Production: Casting Director Arthur Carrington, Stage Show Technician Maddy Collins, Production Manager Simon Evans, Lead Producer Sarah Georgeson, Sound Supervisor Emily Legg, Stage Supervisor T J Chappell-Meade, Lighting Supervisor Elmante Rukaite, Lighting Programmer Stephen Settle, Company Manager Mica Taylor, Costume Supervisor Lucy Walshaw

Till October 22nd


Thunderclap, comic-book clouds and lightning. A loinclothed man Hershel Fink (Alex Waldmann) is told by a Voice he’s not in the Promised Land but the Royal Court. Opening Jews. In Their Own Words.

Most of the audience get this judging by guarded laughter. Hershel Fink was last year’s pulled-before-first-night name in Rare Earth Mettle – featuring a sort of Elon Zuckerberg character, dramatist Stan Smith claimed. The tone-deafness was deafening and it opens a vital conversation between just that – deafness and dog-whistle antisemitism. And outright racism.

The kind that Margaret Hodge’s father, echoing Arthur Miller’s always counselled: keep a suitcase packed. Or as someone else we’ll encounter added: keep your profession portable.

This is the Court’s overtly making amends. In the same Royal Court Downstairs space too. From an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman, novelist and journalist Jonathan Freedland makes his playwriting debut in what’s subtitled A Theatrical Inquiry. Freedland poses his question early but answers it late: “Why do so many parts of the cultural liberal left succumb to anti-Semitism?” And conflate being Jewish with Zionism?

It’s mostly verbatim theatre from conversations totalling 180,000 words with twelve famous and not-famous people Freedland recorded between May and July this year, intricately crafted with co-directors Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, and dramaturg Tommo Fowler.

With moveable screens and neatly-identifying names, as well as exploding Twitter-storms, video designer Reuben Cohen has counterpointed abuse and conversation, experience and visual outrage, like the infamous mural. Alongside apt intercutting of verbatim material, crafted like intimate talk on occasion, as well as a long-table discussion with an almost religious hush, it pinpoints each witness; till we take away something from names we never knew.

These twelve, played by seven actors, interweave their own witness with other material where they act dressed up in (ironically) mystery-play dumb-shows as we get pogrom-by-lightning, mainly medieval, heading the tetralogy: Money (cue money-lending, the only profession allowed Jews). Blood, Blood-Libel (the lies round blood-sacrifice of Christian children) and Power.

Beyond the Lit Flickr Chaucer to Churchill (Prioress’ Tale and hello again Court, Seven Jewish Children) choices are illustrative – through Norwich 1144, Lincoln 1255, York above all in 1190; not Edward I’s well-known expulsion a century on. Far more unsettling history like the last UK-wide near-pogrom of August 1st 1947 (combatted by Group 43 ex-service personnel) and the very recent assassination plot against Rosie Cooper in 2017, ought to be there. Liberal Britain can forgive itself 1190. But 1946-50, 1962, 2017? Admittedly these erupt like shouts to drown dog-whistles that need exposing. But that’s where dog-whistles end too.

The first half whirls with theatricality – those dumb-shows, above all a diamante-jacketed musical number ‘It Was the Jews That Did It’ out of Cabaret/Oh What a Lovely War flecked with a Theatre Workshop parody of ‘Bare Necessities’. It’s only after this we get to witness and then the big question.

The stories twelve characters relate transmit trauma, survival, flinching humour. There’s striking work from Louisa Clein as Oberman, relating how she was up for a TV Elizabeth Bennett and (just to begin) her hair was noticed; but also about how Oberman used her name and what not to mention. This chimes throughout.

As Hannah Rose Rachel Leah-Hosker tells an internalised narrative, transmitted fear. Finding a swastika etched on her father’s car.Similarly, Leah-Hosker’s Victoria Hart relates blank incomprehension and mute hostility she encounters in the healthcare profession.

Steve Furst’s elegant interjections as Howard Jacobsen – particularly about his parents’ poverty and how he grew up with racism – are almost eclipsed by his Phillip Abrahams, decorator, where people assume he can’t possibly need to be one; his making a point of tipping Uber drivers after telling them he’s Jewish, but encountering a Turkish shopkeeper who tells him Jews spread coronavirus in Coca-Cola bottles. Abrahams’ deadpan humour and quiet authority make him in Furst’s hands compelling. There’s almost a cheer when Abrahams relates how his old headmaster didn’t counsel Jewish boys to avoid an area, but go and fight back.

Billy Ashcroft’s journalist Steve Bush first poses those questions for the left, particularly around that deadly conflation of anti-Zionism; and as bi-racial difficult ones for everybody. As Dr Dave Rich Head of Policy at the Community Security Trust for the Studying of Antisemitism, Ashcroft gives stats to counterpoise the personal.

Hemi Yeroham is particularly impressive, as Edwin Shuker, trapped in Baghdad after the main exodus of 1951, till he and his family were able to escape in 1971. And as (name changed) Joshua Bitensky, relating a horrific racist attack leaving a confident physically strong man with PTSD. There’s a stillness in Yeroham that conveys some of the deepest impressions.

Much of Luciana Berger’s trauma is known, but Clein’s inhabiting Berger’s devastating rejection after she loosed Twitter against hours of Labour party inertia over that mural, and a Labour Constituency meeting where she was hours from giving birth, is rivetingly horrible. As are the Twitter explosions she and Hodge experience, some repeated by Clein. You can see why for different but related reasons, Rosie Cooper has quit as an MP.

Debbie Chazen as confident Tammy Rothenberg choosing not to train as a national-specific lawyer, but a doctor welcome everywhere. It’s these quiet tellings that remain devastating. Prejudice shapes and swerves lives.

With Chazen as Margaret Hodge we’re in territory beyond her denunciation of Corbyn and it’s much more personal, beyond the obscenities Chazen like Clein recites. First, Hodge’s revealing unease with the disparity of Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli lives whilst visiting in the 1960s; and for anyone who’s still in doubt – Ken Livingstone always calling Hodge by her maiden name Oppenheimer.

Freedland has interviewed famous voices from his own lens on Labour. Till recently some left-wing forums (and CLPs) might have seen antisemitism played out by a minority ad nauseam; it’s not unconscious, or just lazy. It’s never the plight of Kurds (despite the KLA Kurdish women fighters), Yemen, or Saudi-Arabia, but always Israel and Zionism that obsessed them. It’s a point well made here by Ashcroft’s Dave Rich, involving 19th century anti-capitalism and antisemitic tropes. This minority were in fairness often kicked off forums. But not before huge damage woke moderators up.

Freedland’s lens is in one sense uncontroversial. There are other, more difficult conversations to be had, not least with ‘the wrong kind of Jew’ expelled from Labour. Because of the last seven years, and for several reasons, socialism – which could hardly have survived without huge Jewish presence and leadership – is in danger of being labelled de facto antisemitic.

Like another reviewer, I went with my Jewish partner, a director who’s been coming to the Court since her early teens. Before a word was spoken she whispered in a shudder. ‘What an idea: get all the Jews in a room.’ It’s Freedland’s and Oberman’s brilliance to bring such off-kilter, casual devastation to the stage, not in those versed in PR; but those raw unsettlings that for many keep the suitcase packed.