John Lithgow to star in Royal Court play about Roald Dahl’s antisemitism

<span>Roald Dahl.</span><span>Photograph: Ronald Dumont/Getty Images</span>
Roald Dahl.Photograph: Ronald Dumont/Getty Images

His bestselling children’s books are regularly turned into hit plays and musicals but now Roald Dahl’s personal life has inspired a new drama. John Lithgow, best known for the TV comedy 3rd Rock from the Sun, will star as the author in Giant, written by Mark Rosenblatt and directed by Nicholas Hytner at the Royal Court theatre in London this autumn.

I’m thrilled to be performing at the Royal Court where I’ve seen so much great work, stretching all the way back to the late 1960s,” said Lithgow. “There’s no better place to unveil Mark Rosenblatt’s stunning new play.”

Giant is set in 1983, shortly before the publication of Dahl’s novel The Witches, as he comes under fire for his antisemitic views expressed in the media. In an interview with the New Statesman that year, Dahl said: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity … Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” In 2020, the Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company issued an apology for the “lasting and understandable hurt” caused by such statements.

Rosenblatt’s play unfolds across an afternoon at Dahl’s family home. It offers, according to publicity material, “a complicated portrait of a fiendishly charismatic icon” and “explores with dark humour the difference between considered opinion and dangerous rhetoric”. Giant is the debut play by Rosenblatt, a writer-director whose short films have included Ganef, exploring the impact of trauma and inspired by stories from the aftermath of his family’s Holocaust survival.

Rosenblatt said: “Giant is my first play. When I was tearing my hair out writing it at my kitchen table, I never for a second imagined it would premiere on this landmark stage, and with this calibre of cast and creative team. It’s completely surreal and thrilling to have it programmed as part of David Byrne’s first season. I really hope Giant gives Royal Court audiences an uncomfortably funny, urgent and provocative night in the theatre.”

The Royal Court itself was at the centre of an antisemitism controversy in 2021 over offensive stereotyping in the play Rare Earth Mettle, featuring a manipulative billionaire capitalist with the name Hershel Fink. It changed the character’s name and later apologised for “the pain that has been caused around the production”.

In 2022, the theatre staged a verbatim play – Jews. In Their Own Words. – by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, based on his conversations with 12 Jewish people who, he said, spoke “frankly and very personally, sharing feelings many had long buried”. It was directed by the Royal Court’s then artistic director, Vicky Featherstone.

Lithgow, a two-time Tony award-winner, starred in the farce The Magistrate at London’s National Theatre in 2012, during Nicholas Hytner’s artistic directorship. Giant had previously been developed with Hytner’s London Theatre Company for the Bridge theatre. Its cast will include Elliot Levey as Dahl’s publisher Tom Maschler.

In 2023 it was revealed that hundreds of changes had been made to Dahl’s bestselling stories to remove language deemed inappropriate. Since then his novels have continued to inspire stage and screen productions including the blockbuster movie Wonka, a prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Timothée Chalamet; Wes Anderson’s short film The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar; and a musical version of The Witches at the National Theatre. The Enormous Crocodile, first seen at Leeds Playhouse in December, will transfer to Regent’s Park Open Air theatre later this year.

Giant was announced on Monday as part of the first season of the Royal Court’s new artistic director, David Byrne, who was appointed in 2023 and previously ran the New Diorama theatre. Byrne said: “More than just a season, this is a statement of intent for what’s to come: a new generation of bold voices with big, messy stories to tell; world-renowned artists rubbing alongside insurgent new talent, igniting some unmissable theatre on our stages.” Throughout the season, half of all seats in the theatre’s main space, the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, will be available at £22.50 or less and all tickets for Monday night performances will be £15.

The season’s new plays include Ben Whishaw in Margaret Perry’s adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s set of prose poems Bluets, directed by Katie Mitchell; Stewart Pringle’s comedy The Bounds, set in the world of medieval football; Emteaz Hussain’s Expendable, about a sexual abuse scandal; Tife Kusoro’s G which explores the unravelling friendships of three Black boys; and Brace Brace by Oliver Forsyth, examining the aftermath of a plane hijacking.

A co-production with London international festival of theatre, Nassim Soleimanpour and Omar Elerian’s ECHO (Every Cold Hearted Oxygen), will see a different performer on stage each night, taking on a script they’ve never seen before. Ciara Elizabeth Smyth’s disturbing comedy Lie Low, previously seen at Dublin’s Abbey and Edinburgh’s Traverse, will also be staged at the Royal Court as will Sabrina Ali’s Dugsi Dayz, a Breakfast Club-style comedy about British-Somali girls in detention, previously seen at London’s Rich Mix and the Edinburgh fringe.

In January, the Royal Court announced that due to financial pressures it would be “entering into a process that will see a range of measures taken to secure the long-term future of the organisation”. The theatre did not rule out redundancies and said it would be “remodelling the way that we work and reassessing staff teams”.