(Funny) foreigners welcome

When Britain decides how it should feel about foreigners, it will be a nation transformed. I briefly scratched my head today over the news that comic Omad Djalili, born in London of Iranian parents, will succeed Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in the West End revival of Oliver! in July. A performer whose act riffs off Middle-Eastern stereotypes but whose screen roles often embody them now has a chance to take on a notorious Jewish stereotype. The show's producer Cameron Mackintosh lauds Djalili's 'comic energy and wily cunning', which isn't necessarily a quote to soothe any fears that ethnicity is once again being used for a laugh.

The revival of Oliver! initially won attention for casting key roles via a tv show, I'd Do Anything. Subsequent debate was sparked by the marketing chaps wilfully raising hackles about the show's comic-villainous Jew, with a poster image that offers a colourful hook-nose caricature. Playwright Julia Pascal, whose work frequently engages with received notions of Jewishness (including a complex, revisionist version of The Merchant of Venice), discussed her unhappiness that Fagin was still with us - and with him his semitic 'wily cunning.' Tellingly, the response on The Guardian website was frequently vitriolic.

My head is with Julia, my heart muddled by nostalgia. My Jewish family grew up with shows like Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof. Broadway musicals have always had a strong streak of yiddishkeit: there's a brilliant line in Kauffmann and Lardner's 1931 comedy June Moon, in which a Tin Pan Alley pianist shrugs, 'If song-writers always wrote about their home state, what a big Jewish population Tennessee must have.' And, if you wanted to see some kind of representation of the Jewish experience in the mainstream theatre, these shows might represent a better bet than the work of Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter, both of whom often refuted suggestions that characters like Willy Loman or the family in The Homecoming were Jewish, as if that might impugn their universality.

You don't have to like, or even recognise, Fagin, Shylock, Othello or O'Neill's Emperor Jones to feel that at least ethnicity is being acknowledged on the mainstream stage, or that a doorway into conversation has been opened, however crudely. Fagin is a miserable creation, but his rapscallion vigour is so much more charismatic than the surrounding mass of bullies and urchins. I can recite large chunks of 'You've got to pick a pocket or two' and 'Reviewing the situation', but that might prove nothing more than that I've ingested huge tuneful dollops of bad faith since childhood, and have lost sight of the distinction between the sound of a good night out and that of an opportunist rattling the bones of racism.

Meanwhile, Richard Bean's new large-scale comedy for the National Theatre, England People Very Nice, examines successive waves of immigration into London's East End, traditionally the area in which new groups settle. Although still in previews, it has already been attacked by Hussain Ismail as a play which 'tries to mask its ugly prejudices behind claptrap, cheap humour and tired stereotypes.' One person's equal-opportunity satire is another's discomfort - but producing discomfort, however interesting, surely isn't enough. It may be a sign that a writer has located a raw and conflicted subject, but not that he's treating it interestingly. We'd better keep reviewing the situation.

Has Fagin had his day? What kinds of stage portrayals make you squirm? Is entertainment its own justification? Let me know what you think.

February 12, 2009 12:11 AM | | Comments (7) |

7 Comments

Hoped to see Caryl Churchill's play, Andrew, but fear I'll miss it. I was impressed by your troubled and thoughtful review, and impressed by the amount of extra homework your comments landed you with.

I've downloaded it from the Royal Court's website though, and will report back. (Anyone who is interested in reading this very short, but clearly controversial play can download it at:
http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/files/downloads/SevenJewishChildren.pdf )

David,

re: Anti-Semitism, have you seen Seven Jewish Children. Would be interested to learn your perspective. It already feels like I've written more on that play in a week than on any other single play in over the last ten years.

Doesn't surprise me at all, Montague - it's all part of the Fagin brand of ingratiating creepiness. Though I might suggest that bundling a variety of unsavoury character traits has long been a part of ethnic stereotyping. As you say, however, Oliver is almost like a convention of dysfunctional relationships and failed families...

So, like, folks are surprised that 1) prejudice still exists and that 2) the folks who have been the objects of such prejudice are particularly sensitive to intimations thereof? Wow. What shocking concepts!

Anyway, I have never seen Fagin, in the 3 iterations of his character that I have seen on stage here in the USA, as being necessarily Jewish, just a pederast. (Now don't tell me that surprises you - he does call members of his gang of little boys "dear.") That's not an anti-gay statement, either, any more than recognizing the almost textbook abusive relationship of Sykes and Nancy condemns heterosexuality.

I disagree. For just one example, one could have listened extensively to the World Service's coverage of Israel's invasion of Gaza without ever hearing that it was an attempt to stop Hamas' firing of rockets into Israel. The BBC reported damage to schools and apartment buildings without mentioning that those are the places where Hamas cynically bases itself.

...And the most egregious example, hardly unique to the BBC: When religious extremists blow up Britons or Americans, they are (rightly) referred to as "terrorists"; when their ideological brethren do the same to Israelis, they are called "militants".

Many thanks for your comment, Jeffrey. I know the BBC's reporting is a constant contention, and under great scrutiny, but not to me - I find it staggeringly even-handed. You'll have to look elsewhere for anti-semitism (not to mention the another-subject-entirely anti-zionism). You're quite right, though - covert, sneery anti-semitism has a long and far too respectable history in English writing, including drama.

Anyone who's listened to the BBC's coverage of the Middle East knows that "English antisemitism" is not a fictional construct.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on February 12, 2009 12:11 AM.

Abandon hope (in a good way) was the previous entry in this blog.

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