Thursday 12 February 2009
Seven Jewish Children - Royal Court
Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is pretty much as blunt as The Stone is sharp; substituting an hour of subtle moral inquiry for ten minutes of what could easily be read as simplistic moralising. This is probably unfair, although I guarantee that there’ll be a fair number of reviews that will advance this thesis. Against those will be ranged another few which applaud their perception of Churchill’s political position with nary a thought for what they might have actually witnessed in the theatre.
The structure of Seven Jewish Children is as follows: there are seven scenes; each alluding to a chapter in the history of the state of Israel (apart from the first, which is set in the Holocaust). Each contain a number of lines – not allotted in the text to specific speakers, á la Attempts on Her Life/4.48 Psychosis/pool (no water) – most beginning with the words “Tell her...” or “Don’t tell her...” – which nominally imagine Jewish or Israeli parents, grandparents or concerned friends discussing what to say to an unseen young-sounding daughter about the crisis through which they are currently living. It begins in the Holocaust with an Anne Frank-like hiding from the Nazis “Tell her it’s a game. / Tell her it’s important to be quiet.” and ends up in what we can only assume is Churchill’s take on the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or is it a ceasefire at the moment?) in Gaza.
It is this last scene which is most likely to draw criticism. It contains the only lengthy speech of the play and one which offers the least sympathetic imaginable characterisation of Israeli aggression (“Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. [...] Tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? Tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them [...] Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out...” – this isn’t especially selective quotation, it’s a pretty fair sample). As the piece draws on, the “her” in question starts to sound less like a child and more like Israel itself – as if the citizens are discussing what they can tell themselves about what they are doing. It moves from comforting a child to massaging news values.
Churchill does include some of Israel’s justifications for its actions, but never in a way that understands the psychology of how it must feel to live in a country surrounded by geographical neighbours who are on record saying they’d quite like to see the Jews driven into the sea; to live in a nation formed after the only attempt at wholesale mechanised genocide in history; a Holocaust routinely denied by their enemies.
It feels as if Churchill’s compassion has been blinded by her pacifism. Instead of walking a mile in the other man’s shoes (in this instance the other man being Israel), she has been profoundly upset by the use of massive military force. She sees Israel as a bully and an aggressor rather than as a very small state surrounded by political enemies, which is under constant threat of anihilation. This isn’t to say that the recent attacks on Gaza are desirable. However, in most other instances, liberalism (for want of a better, or indeed accurate, word) has made a virtue of at least seeking to understand even those for whom it has no sympathy. Count up the number of speculatively “understanding plays” about, say, the Moors Murderers, the children who killed Jamie Bulger, paedophiles, etc. and compare them with the number of plays that offer any speculative understanding of the Israeli position. It’s a bit of an embarrassment, isn’t it?
More worrying is the fact that the Court has unwittingly made a double bill of The Stone and Seven Jewish Children. Played in the same space, on the same set, with only a half-hour interval (and with the latter piece thrown in free), the Court has set itself up for unwonted accusations. Put baldly, following a play about the illegitimate dispossession of Jewish homeowners in Nazi Germany with a piece about the state of Israel sets up a disastrous set of inferences. It could – and I stress *could* - look like the theatrical equivalent of those flags waved around on anti-war marches which replace the Star of David on the Israeli flag with a swastika.
Nothing in Seven Jewish Children questions the right of the state of Israel to exist. It clearly wears its compassion on its sleeve and, I am sure, is a plea for moderation, tolerance, dialogue and peace on both sides. I have no doubt Caryl Churchill deplores the suicide-bombing of cafes and rocket attacks on civilian homes just as much as somewhat scattergun “surgical” strikes on Hamas strongholds inconveniently or cynically located in the heart of civilian populations.
I worry, however, that in staging only Jewish characters, both sympathetic and unsympathetic – excellently played by an entirely Jewish cast, it should probably be noted – that this addition to the vast and vexed conversation on the Israel/Palestine conflict leaves itself open to unwelcome and, as it turns out, unjustified accusations of casual left-wing anti-Semitism.
Like Churchill’s last play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You, the playwright’s politics are worn so baldly on the play’s sleeve, that the ersatz experimentalism of the piece’s form is lost in a mire of lecturing. We all get it. We’re not being made to work at complexity, we’re being told that something is bad. Ultimately, Seven... is a very quick theatrical trot through an opinion most of us have heard rehearsed a thousand times before. If Churchill really wanted to shake us up, she’d be putting the Israelis' point of view. In the current climate, that really would be revolutionary.
Photo by Keith Pattison