LONDON — In the summer of 2014, as a major Israeli-Hamas conflict flared, playwright Stephen Laughton, a self-styled “romantic Zionist,” was working part time in public relations at the BBC. During that feverish period, pro- and anti-Israel rallies regularly demonstrated outside the building where Laughton worked.
“One day I left the building and walked smack into a Palestinian rally,” Laughton recalls during a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “And one of the demonstrators, who absolutely was not Palestinian, saw my tattoo — which says ‘herut‘ [‘freedom’] 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.”
Those tumultuous feelings have now found expression in Laughton’s latest stage offering, “One Jewish Boy,” which opened December 11 at a fringe venue in central London. And an understandably nervous Laughton has been 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 this past September.
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 anti-Semitism and “wanted to talk about it in a really honest and frank way, to talk about the four columns of anti-Semitism: 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, feeling empty and rudderless, 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.”
Laughton suddenly feels it necessary to put one thing on the record. “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 says.
He got his herut tattoo in Tel Aviv in 2013 after spending a day at the city’s Museum of 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 reasoning from the left about Israel. It is clearly a situation which caused, and continues to cause him, pain.
“I can’t support BDS, it hurts people like me. But I can’t support [Prime Minister Benjamin] 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 anti-Semitism,” Laughton says.
“One Jewish Boy,” Laughton’s third play, is the one most overtly concerned with Jewish identity — although there have been references in his previous work. This latest work, though, 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 fucking 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, [anti-Semitism] not I/P [Israel/Palestine], and he has a little fundraiser afterwards for Palestinians? He should be abused. He’s feeding the very narrative he claims to refute.”
One Israeli complained directly to Laughton in response to his announcement that charity collections would be made after each performance for the British organization Medical Aid for the Palestinians (MAP) — as well as for Yad Vashem and Rabbis for Human Rights.
“[They said] I was a typical Diaspora Jew, called me disgusting and sickening and asked how I could complain about anti-Semitism whilst supporting Palestinians,” says Laughton.
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 published 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 on weekends, and even predict that his father will be a lawyer, accountant or a medic. (He’s a lawyer.)
But Jesse is not as stereotypical as all that. 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 fucking 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 — anti-Semitism everywhere he looks.
Alex, for her part, understands only too well about racism — but hers is anti-black racism, and people’s responses to her when they suddenly realize that though she is light-skinned, she is actually 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 anti-Semitism” 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism, and its legacy is to color 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 Israeli immigration forms.
And as for his actors — the extraordinarily talented Robert Neumark-Jones and Asha Reid — they, Laughton says, have been unfazed by the social media abuse.
“They say bring it on,” Laughton says with approval.
“One Jewish Boy” runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London through January 5, 2019.