Thespian Agitprop

Why is British theatre about Israel so relentlessly one-note?

David Herman

This month two very different plays open in London. They raise disturbing questions about British theatre’s bias against Israel.

On September 29 (coincidentally the night of Kol Nidre) a revival of the anti-Israel play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, opens at the Young Vic. First performed at the Royal Court in 2005, it tells the story of Corrie, a young American activist working for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who was killed trying to block an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozer conducting military operations in the Gaza Strip in 2003. Her family lost a wrongful death appeal in the Israeli Supreme Court in 2015.

Corrie’s emails and diaries were the basis for the play, edited by Katharine Viner, now editor of the Guardian, and Alan Rickman, and directed by Rickman at the Royal Court. Reviews divided on clear political lines. The Guardian wrote: “The danger of right-on propaganda is avoided by the specificity of Rickman’s Theatre Upstairs production. Above all, this is a portrait of a woman . . .”  By contrast, The Times argued that “an element of unvarnished propaganda comes to the fore. With no attempt made to set the violence in context, we are left with the impression of unarmed civilians being crushed by faceless militarists.”

This month’s revival has been condemned by Jewish organisations who have called the play “unapologetically anti-Israel” and “an opportunity to fan the flames of hatred”.

More disturbing, however, is the larger picture of anti-Israel bias in British theatre. Over the past 20 years there have been a number of plays attacking Israel: My Name is Rachel Corrie, Alive from Palestine: Stories Under the Occupation, one of David Lan’s first productions at the Young Vic in 2002, David Hare’s Via Dolorosa and Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza (both at the Royal Court). In 2014 the Tricycle Theatre refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival because it received funding from the Israeli embassy. The Tricycle was supported by Nicholas Hytner, then director of the National Theatre. In addition, Harold Pinter, Michael Kustow and Arnold Wesker all became vocal critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Along with Churchill and Hare, these were major figures in British theatre and the Court; the Young Vic and the Tricycle are prominent theatres. At Edinburgh this summer, Jackie Walker, a left-wing activist suspended from Labour over accusations of anti-Semitism, had a one-woman show, The Lynching, which included predictable attacks on Israel. A banner draped in front of the audience read: “Anti-Semitism is a crime. Anti-Zionism is a duty.”

Where are the pro-Israel plays? More important, where are British plays which treat this conflict in an even-handed way or which create interesting Israeli characters?

This month’s other play about Israel is Oslo, at the National Theatre, on the talks that led to the Oslo agreements in the 1990s. It is by an American playwright, J.T. Rogers, and is transferring from Broadway. It was hailed by the New York Times for featuring “a vast cast of characters, of widely varied temperaments and ideological stripes”. It is inconceivable that it would have been commissioned by a British theatre or written by a well-known British playwright. Why? Because the cultural Left has been consistently critical of Israel for more than 30 years, singling it out for unique opprobrium. 

The other contrast is with television drama. In recent years there have been acclaimed drama series about the Middle East, above all, Homeland and Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman, where the emphasis has been on complexity and ambiguity, with unforgettable Israeli and Arab characters. Why have even-handed TV dramas on Israel been possible, when British theatre can only produce shrill agitprop? The answer, sadly, is that British theatres think it is better to be self-righteous than carefully to explore both sides of complex conflicts.

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