Peep Show’s Isy Suttie to plug in for play about Jewish Londoners
- Credit: � Blake Ezra Photography Ltd. 2
Circumcision, suburban spanking and atheism were just a few of the subjects that Kerry Shale uncovered while searching for tales of Jewish family life.
After interviewing a cross-section of Jewish Londoners, the actor and writer has edited down the tapes into a verbatim play during which the voices are played into the ears of the actors – who replicate every um, er and stutter.
Listen, We’re Family, the first theatre commission by the new JW3 centre in Finchley Road, is co-created by director Matthew Lloyd and stars both Shale and actress Isy Suttie, best known as Dobby from Peep Show.
“Verbatim theatre uses only words spoken by real people, but there are different types,” says Shale.
“In some, the actors make their own decisions about the timing, but here we are replicating the voices as they are spoken.
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“I was in a show that used this technique and I was completely taken with it. The ums and ahs can be so telling. One person I played was always searching for the right word, which was part of his character.”
If verbatim theatre aims to bring the audience as close as possible to the source material, this technique, agrees Shale, offers near “total verisimilitude”.
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But doesn’t it put actors out of a job?
“It might take a certain actor to embrace it – it requires a different set of skills. You are more facilitator than interpreter. Instead of having to find your character’s voice, you have the discipline of adapting to someone else’s speaking pattern. It’s strangely liberating. Because you are not having to remember lines, you can concentrate on the detail and it’s easier to make it fresh every night.”
The two-minute segments culled from 24, hour-long interviews include a 91-year-old Tottenham barber, an Orthodox rabbi from Hackney, a yoga teacher from Temple Fortune, a convert ‘more Jewish than the Jewish themselves’ and a young gay man bullied for being both Jewish and effeminate.
They reveal tales of feuds and sibling rivalry – universal issues common to many families – but also culturally specific concerns such as anti-Semitism and identity.
“We sought as wide a range as we could of the Jewish community. Some of the themes were like your regular family, only the added Jewish factor means it’s much louder and maybe more intense,” says Shale.
A common theme was the importance of the East End to the older generation and their subsequent move to north London suburbia.
One interviewee’s father had lived an interesting and bizarre life in Ruislip.
“Ivor Goldblatt had worked in the West End in the 50s at a hairdressers known as Mr Teazy Weazy but after his wife died he became a card sharp who never paid income tax or VAT. He decided to reinvent himself by turning his house into a spanking business with school girls and naughty aristocrats. He organised these clubs and made videos. The son knew nothing until he was in his 30s. His old bedroom had been turned into a schoolroom.”
Shale adds that despite telling interviewees not to reveal names or anything they were uncomfortable with, most subjects “had the gift of the gab” and were happy to share.
“I thought they would be somewhat guarded – we weren’t trying to stitch anyone up – but these conversations were highly charged. I said don’t use names but most of them did. If I feel the story is too sensitive I’ve cut the names, but most of them weren’t bothered.”
Canadian-born Shale, who lives off Upper Street in Islington, adds: “They are such a secular, hugely assimilated bunch. One complains there are too many Jewish people in her area, and another had a mother born in Vienna who hadn’t wanted anything to do with Jews.
“Running through many of the interviews is the idea of the cultural Jew. Aside from the Rabbi, the only believing Jew was the woman who converted. The first thing everyone else said was ‘I am not a practising Jew’. It’s that idea that if it wasn’t for the Holocaust they wouldn’t be defining themselves as Jewish. But one 25-year-old is kind of a new breed, he has reclaimed the old family name which was changed to anglicise it.”
Shale himself admits he doesn’t like to be defined as Jewish “even though I am doing this project”.
But despite their integration, most of the interviewees had experienced anti-Semitism.
“In the playground and workplace; for the older people it could be vicious. The 91-year-old remembered going to hear Mosley speak in Hyde Park with a razor in his pocket.”
And some cultural customs such as Friday night dinner and the Bris endure.
“Even the atheist had her son circumcised. No-one can explain why they are doing it. The only word that comes up is tradition.”
n Listen, We’re Family runs at JW3 from November 10 to 24, excluding Fridays and Saturdays.