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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session IV: The politics of representation and the theatre

Crossing Jerusalem and negotiating issues of censorship
and self-censorship

Julia Pascal, playwright and director, London

The first time I experienced censorship was with my play 'Theresa'. Set in the
Channel Islands during the Second World War, the play explored the collaboration between the British authorities on Guernsey and Jersey and the Feldkommandatur. Most particularly it focused on the life of Theresa Steiner (she was in fact Theresia but I anglicised her name as it appeared often on official documents). She was a Viennese Jew who ended up in Guernsey and was betrayed by the Police and the Bailiff to the Germans. The Channel Isles absorbed the Nazi hate laws - the Nuremberg Laws - from October 1940 and Jews stuck on the Islands suffered the consequences.

I first tried to sell the play to various regional theatres, who didn't believe this British history. Later, of course, some of the records became public and the truth filtered out. 'Theresa' was a great success and was also broadcast by BBC Radio as 'The Road to Paradise'. The play was banned in Guernsey, but they could not block the airwaves.

More recently I wrote 'Crossing Jerusalem' thanks to a seedbed grant from the European Association of Jewish Culture and this was produced in March 2003 at The Tricycle Theatre in London who commissioned it. The collaborative experience of working with the director, writer, dramaturge and other theatre colleagues at various script meetings, which led up to final draft was both valuable and challenging.

I had to be aware of the mainly anti-Israel feelings that gentile and some left-wing Jewish audiences carried into the theatre. Once the pre-publicity went out, one pro-Palestinian English group complained that I had called the Arabs in the play 'Arabs' and not 'Palestinians'. They wrote to the theatre, who asked my advice. I refused to change the wording and the theatre supported me. In any event, the play has Christian and Muslim Arabs in it and to demand that I call them all 'Palestinians' seemed to me to be a kind of censorship that I could not accept. Many Jews in the audiences said they felt uncomfortable hearing some of the anti-Arab opinions expressed by the Israeli characters, but recognised them as real. I had to overcome a measure of self-censorship to allow certain conversations on to the public platform of the London stage.

In particular, I had to deal with a certain amount of self-censorship while overcoming the problem of presenting less than ideal Jews. My aim was to produce a play, which reflected the complexity of Israeli society through the microcosm of one family. The matriarch Varda is at the centre of the
play. She is a loud-mouthed, rude, ambitious, attractive character who appears to be anti-Palestinian but is later revealed to have been intimate with an Arab worker. More difficult was the role of Gideon, a refusenik who talks about having broken the arms of a Palestinian lad who was throwing rocks at him during the intifada. It was hard to write an unsympathetic reserve soldier, but in doing so, and having him admit his revulsion, I realised that in fact I was humanising him even more. While talking about the arm-breaking experience Gideon breaks down and tells his wife that he was so ashamed of himself that he vomited all over his uniform. When I wrote this I thought about the body's reaction to fear and anger. Vomiting seemed the best expression of this revulsion. But, when I saw the scene in performance, I was shocked by the symbolism of an Israeli man vomiting on his IDF uniformů This image of vomiting clearly came from my own complex feelings about IDF cruelties in the territories and was not a feeling I consciously censored. Certainly, listening to this every night really made me feel anxious - as if it wasn't me who had written such a terrible thing.

As for writing the Palestinians, this was a really tough area for me because I questioned my right to create characters from a culture that is not mine. I also worried about what kind of 'voice' to give them. Listening to the BBC and hearing so many Palestinians interviewed during the intifada, I realised there is no single 'voice' or way of speaking, but many different ones depending on education and background. This liberated me from my own self-censorship and allowed me to give Israelis and Palestinians the same Americanised English as I realised that all of us are now layered with this double culture.

In any event the Israelis would be talking Hebrew and the Arabs Arabic, but as my play was in English I had to create a muscular Americanised English that worked for both groups. There was a strange freedom about writing the Arab who hates the Jews in the character of Yusuf, who dreams of an Israel which is Judenrein. The actor playing the role, Dan Ben-Zenou, was castigated by an elderly Jewish man after one performance. 'Aren't you ashamed, you a Jewish boy, to play such a part?' he was asked. The other Arabs in the text are older and more complex, and it was good to be pushed into imagining their lives and creating sympathy for their situation.

I was glad that audiences came out of the performances talking avidly and with many preconceptions broken. 'Crossing Jerusalem' was the hardest play I ever wrote because I had to deal with my own levels of censorship and also to negotiate with Nick Kent (Artistic Director of The Tricycle Theatre) and Jack Gold (the play's director) about the balance of mistrust and hatred between Israelis and Arabs. This was a tough one for me, but one which forced me to explore the issues further than I would have done and it made me push the characters to their limits. I was glad to have this collaboration and to explore my own inner censorship. Some Sharonite Israelis may have been offended by the play, but I heard the majority speak very positively. A Palestinian family came up after one performance to tell me this should be seen in Israel and in Palestine. A greater compliment I could not have.

My next play is a commission by The Bush Theatre and is set in the north of
England within a Muslim community. I am trying not to write about Jews for once in my life. I have started the research and met Muslim children who have clearly never met a Jew before. I think our interaction is the most important
means of breaking down stereotypes and fear. Creative connections can be the
only way to smash the censorship which imprisons us all.