Seven Jewish Children

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London

Yes, you read it right. 10 minutes, the length of Caryl Churchill’s `response’ to Gaza. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, `quick response’ could be applied as much to the Arts as to the emergency services. Now a quick theatrical response is rare. It evidently takes something traumatic to fire the imagination of artists and writers these days. Gaza has clearly been one of them.

Churchill is to be applauded therefore for returning topical urgency to our theatre – though some might have wished she had held back. The play has attracted a firestorm of criticism from many in the British Jewish community. Clearly written in heat, Churchill, typically, has found a new format – an arc that attempts to trace the recent history of the Jews, starting with the Holocaust, the settling of Israel, and taking us up to Gaza.

Seven short scenes follow a similar pattern. A group of family relatives intone `Tell her’ to an unseen child, outlining what has passed over a span of roughly 70 years. At first their account elicits sympathy but gradually their views become more distasteful. At the end, an Israeli father delivers a speech of pure, cold-hearted callousness. We have come full circle. This, implies Churchill, is what has happened to the Jewish people, as Israelis. In the wake of the Holocaust, victims have turned perpetrators, the brutalised brutalisers.

It’s a shocking piece shot through with outrage and agony, not least for British Jews. Churchill seems to have gone out of her way to paint the Israelis in their darkest colours. There are no opposing voices, only Israeli ones becoming shriller by the minute. No wonder there has been such an outcry. No distinction has been made between Jew and Israeli – a crucial one that leads to constant misunderstanding.

Directed by Dominic Cooke with a predominantly Jewish cast, Seven Jewish Children was shown as a companion piece to Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone. Although not planned as such, Churchill’s 10 minutes echoed his themes of Time, occupation and the painful, shifting claims of settlers to `home’, with an unfortunate, uncompromising clarity where Mayenburg was often cloudy.

First printed in Reviewsgate, Feb 2009