Jews. In Their Own Words. review – an illuminating, unsettling study of prejudice

This brave and necessary show was conceived, according to its writer, the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, as the Royal Court’s attempt to make amends for staging a play last year judged to be antisemitic. It was the inspiration of the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, and is an involving correction, going way beyond record-straightening and guaranteed to stir argument. I am not Jewish but went to the performance with my husband who is – and, as we left the theatre, we talked about the question of to whom the piece is addressed. I felt that it is intended to urge a leftwing, non-Jewish audience to interrogate unconsciously held prejudices. My husband countered that it is as much for Jews – he found it an illuminating and unsettling evening.

His reaction is convincing given the variety of voices in this verbatim piece. Twelve British Jews (played by actors) have been skilfully interviewed by Freedland. Speakers range from the well-known (Margaret Hodge, Howard Jacobson, Luciana Berger) to private individuals, such as the entertaining Phillip Abrahams, a decorator. His horrific antisemitic stories would border on absurd if only he had made them up – especially one in which a Turkish newsagent blames Jews for coronavirus. But more insidious, because less obvious, prejudice is also aired. There is a particularly revelatory discussion about anti-Zionism as a cloak for antisemitism.

In spite of director Vicky Featherstone’s professionalism, making showbiz out of the subject proves challenging: when everyone – diamante on their lapels – dances to the song It Was the Jews That Did It, the irony feels forced. But the piece’s biggest problem is the lack of actual (as opposed to ingeniously orchestrated) dialogue. Rather than attempting to gloss over its journalistic character, I wonder whether including Freedland’s questions might have brought this important piece closer to conversation.