LONDON — The Royal Court Theater is living up to its reputation as a leading site for torn-from-the-headlines topicality — and potential political controversy — with its world premiere staging of leading Brit playwright Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children — A Play for Gaza.”
The play, which opened Feb. 10 in the Royal Court’s 385-seat main theater, is unusual both in its brevity — it’s only 10 minutes long — and in the ways in which Churchill embeds politics both in the production structure and in the text.
Admission to the production, helmed by Royal Court a.d. Dominic Cooke, is free, though collections are taken at each of the scheduled 15 performances for Medical Aid for Palestinians, a relief program currently running an emergency appeal for Gaza.
The text of the play was made available for download on the Internet the day it premiered (Royalcourttheatre.com), and there is no conventional royalty payment required for future productions, only the caveat that any producing org give a donation to MAP.
While it clearly was written as a protest against the Israeli government’s recent 23-day bombardment of Gaza the play is far from a straightforward political harangue. There are no stage directions and no prescribed characters; it consists of a series of seven short, poetic passages, most starting with the phrase “Tell her”: “Tell her it’s a story/tell her they’ll go away/tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still.”
The images evoked are of life during wartime, displacement, the death of older relatives, heroic tales of victory and the conquest of a “new land.”
There are scattered references throughout that identify the speakers as Jewish, but — and this seems part of Churchill’s point — many of the ideas and sentiments expressed could just as easily have been spoken by Palestinians, or indeed any population in conflict.
Clear anger only erupts in the final section, which includes reference to Hamas fighters and triumphalist language (“Tell her I don’t care if the world hates us/tell her we’re better haters/tell her we’re chosen people”).
In Cooke’s production, nine actors play the lines as tense, staccato dialogue, giving the strong impression of families — and a larger community — in ongoing crisis. It would be equally interesting to see the text played as a series of monologues.
While Churchill makes her political views clear, the lingering question left with audiences is the impact of entrenched hatreds on future generations.