Stephen Laughton for Times of Israel December 2018
In the summer of 2014, the-self-styled “romantic Zionist”, playwright Stephen Laughton, was working part-time in PR at the BBC. During that feverish period, pro and anti-Israel rallies regularly demonstrated outside the building that Laughton was working in.
“One day I left the building and walked smack into a Palestinian rally”, Laughton recalled this week. “And one of the demonstrators, who absolutely was not Palestinian, saw my tattoo — which says “Herut” in Hebrew — grabbed my wrist, and shouted out — ‘we’ve got a Jew!’”
Laughton says he felt “shame, and fear, and then outrage”, but above all an abiding feeling that the demonstrators needed “to learn the difference between a diaspora Jew and the Israeli government”.
That turmoil of feelings has now found expression in Laughton’s latest stage offering, “One Jewish Boy”, which opened in mid-December in a fringe venue in central London as its “festive” production. But an understandably nervous Laughton was standing by — not just for the critics, but for potential trouble — after a wave of social media abuse hit the play when it was announced in September this year.
Laughton, 37, is hardly a typical Jewish playwright. In fact, he was raised in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, of mixed heritage — his father’s side of the family is Greek Cypriot. The area, in Britain’s Midlands, could scarcely be less Jewish.
But Laughton, who came late to his Jewish identity, says he has noticed the rise of antisemitism “and I wanted to talk about it in a really honest and frank way, to talk about the four columns of antisemitism — blood libel, power and money, split loyalty or untrustworthiness, and Israel”.
He had little to do with either his Jewish or Greek-Cypriot heritage growing up. “I just wanted to be me, to be Stephen, to be British. But about five years ago, my grandfather was dying and I think it was important to him that there was a reference [to Judaism] somewhere. So I joined a synagogue, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in [London’s] St John’s Wood. It was beautiful, it answered everything, just resonated hugely with me. Everything made sense, suddenly all the pieces fell into place.”
He puts a marker down. “I just want to make it clear that I am absolutely not anti-Israel. I have a problem with the current Israeli government, but I love Israel”. He got his Herut tattoo in Tel Aviv in 2013 after spending a day at the city’s Museum of Modern Art, where he saw a beautiful depiction of birds, in a piece entitled “Freedom”. The image, and what it represented, “really resonated with me”, says Laughton.
But while he says he has “sympathy for both sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Laughton, a former Labour Party member, resigned because he could not accept much of the arguments from the Left about Israel. It is clearly a situation which caused, and continues to cause him, pain. He says: “I can’t support BDS, it hurts people like me. But I can’t support Netanyahu, or settlement building — but why should I have to? I’m being held to account by the very fact that I’m a Jewish person using a platform to talk about antisemitism”.
“One Jewish Boy”, Laughton’s third play and the most overtly concerned with Jewish identity, although there have been references in his previous work, has attracted more flak, heat and unwelcome publicity than either Laughton or his director, Sarah Meadows, bargained for.
“One message sent to me said, why should I support your play when you effing Jews are blowing up Palestinian babies?” Laughton pauses and looks rueful. “I’m not blowing anyone up, nor do I want to”. Someone else wrote: “Perhaps you could write a play about Palestinian kids getting blown to pieces by Jews”; and “You’re a f***ing enabler. You Jews disgust me”.
Not all the abuse has come from the pro-Palestinian side. A tweeter calling themselves “catsbeforepeople” wrote : “It’s a play about a/s, [antisemitism] not I/P [Israeli/Palestine], and he has a little fundraiser afterwards for Palestinians? He should be abused. He’s feeding the very narrative he claims to refute”.
And an Israeli complained directly to Laughton, in response to his announcement that charity collections would be made after each performance to Medical Aid for the Palestinians, (as well as for Yad Vashem and Rabbis for Human Rights), that “I was a typical diaspora Jew, called me disgusting and sickening and asked how I could complain about antisemitism whilst supporting Palestinians”.
Palestinian flags have been posted online in response to mentions of the play, and posters announcing the play have been torn down in Islington — coincidentally, part of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary constituency.
The transcript version of the play includes a separate dramatic offering, “Three”, written as a response to Caryl Churchill’s 2009 notorious short play, “Seven Jewish Children”. “Three” was inspired by the 2014 kidnapping and deaths of the three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. The plan is to have a reading of “Three” after a performance of “One Jewish Boy” in early January.
Laughton says he likes to “smash big themes into domestic issues”. The central character in “One Jewish Boy”, Jesse, is indeed a quintessential north London Jewish boy. Audience members from Highgate, where Laughton has placed his fictional character, could probably tell which school and university Jesse has attended, where he likes to hang out at weekends, even predict that his father will be a lawyer or an accountant or a medic. (He’s a lawyer.)
But Jesse is not so stereotypical as we might imagine. The play focuses on his volatile relationship with Alex, a light-skinned, mixed-race woman from a poor part of south London, where it’s safe to bet Jesse has never ventured in his life before meeting Alex.
In a series of snapshots of the couple’s life, we follow the twists and turns of their association, their eventual marriage and the child they have together. And almost the first words out of Jesse’s mouth are about Jews — he is begging Alex not to take their child to Paris —“they shoot Jews in supermarkets in Paris. They shoot Jews in Jewish schools in Paris. They burn old Jewish women in their dirty f***ing Jew flats. In Paris.”
It’s clear from the start that this is not just a play about a difficult relationship between two star-crossed lovers. “I wanted,” says Laughton, “to write about the problems someone has with racism. Jesse has had quite a nice life, he’s never had to deal with race hate, he’s always been with a group of people that he knows. And then suddenly he finds himself in a hostile space” as he encounters — or imagines he encounters — antisemitism everywhere he looks.
Alex, for her part, understands only too well about racism, but with her it is anti-black racism, and how people respond to her because she is light-skinned, but then suddenly realise she is mixed-race. The two have an exchange in which she shouts at Jesse for crossing the road away from a man whom he thinks looks threatening. The man, whom we never see, is black: that could have been her father, Alex tells Jesse.
But Laughton drops in what he calls “casual antisemitism” into Alex’s role, too, as, for example, when she admits that she is glad that the baby she is carrying is a daughter, because she would not want to circumcise their son.
Laughton is convinced that Brexit, and the rows which surround it, has “given permission and voice to racism.” And that, in turn, “has made antisemitism respectable. Which is absolutely not acceptable”.
Though Jesse and Alex supposedly “meet cute” on the party island of Ibiza, Laughton says they meet properly in 2009 on Hampstead Heath in north London, when Jesse has been beaten up viciously and is found by Alex. The beating, inevitably, is one of antisemitism, and its legacy is to colour Jesse’s life to such an extent that he exchanges his comfortable north London Jewish bubble for a paranoid prism of fear — and the ultimate end to every relationship he has.
Even Laughton, who looks relatively settled in his London arts life, admits that he has had the “what if” conversation with his partner and friends, even going as far as to fill in aliya forms.
And as for his actors, the extraordinarily talented Robert Neumark-Jones and Asha Reid, they, he says, have been unfazed by the social media abuse. “They says, bring it on”, he says, with approval.
One Jewish Boy opened at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London on December 11 2018 and runs until January 15 2019.