Meet the ‘Arab’ Fa­gin

He’s had nasty let­ters, but at least one rabbi is a big fan. Bri­tish-Ira­nian ac­tor Omid Djalili tells Brigit Grant how he’s try­ing not to of­fend any­one play­ing Dick­ens’ Jewish pick­pocket

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page - www.the­atre-royal.com Omid Djalili’s DVD Live in Lon­don is out Novem­ber 16

YOU HAVE to ad­mit it was an odd piece of cast­ing. Hav­ing come to terms with Mr Bean (aka Rowan Atkin­son) play­ing Fa­gin in the West End pro­duc­tion of Oliver!, we have had to ad­just to a Bri­tish-Ira­nian co­me­dian in the role.

Omid Djalili step­ping out as Fa­gin the Jew is up there with David Bowie play­ing Pon­tius Pi­late in The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ. Only Jackie Ma­son be­ing cast as Osama bin Laden could be as con­tro­ver­sial.

“When my agent told me they wanted to see me for the part, even I was con­vinced it was a joke,” says Djalili, set­tling back on the sofa in his huge dress­ing room at the The­atre Royal, Drury Lane. “I thought the whole thing of me play­ing this part was a wind-up from day one, which is why I didn’t look at the script or the song-sheets they sent me. So when I met Cameron Mack­in­tosh, I wasn’t ex­actly pre­pared. In fact, I read re­ally badly, but they must have seen some­thing in me be­cause they called me back three weeks later and this time I’d done some home­work.”

The suc­cess, or oth­er­wise, of Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s 1960s mu­si­cal, de­pends heav­ily on the per­for­mance of Fa­gin and af­ter three months Djalili is get­ting the kind of cheers that sug­gest he has the mea­sure of the char­ac­ter. “I don’t think I’ve made him overtly Jewish — have I?” he asks with a smile.

Cer­tainly the ex­ten­sive use of Yid­dish — sam­ple line: “Dodger, don’t be such a lobus” — a sub­stan­tial num­ber of “Oy’s” and a few bursts of Hava Na Gila while shak­ing a purse leaves one in no doubt about the eth­nic­ity of his char­ac­ter.

But Jewish mem­bers of the au­di­ence — who might raise an eye­brow at the thought of an Ira­nian play­ing what some in the past have seen as an an­ti­semitic car­i­ca­ture — seem to have been won over. In fact, on the night I was there, Rabbi Thomas Sala­mon of West­min­ster Syn­a­gogue made a point of per­son­ally con­grat­u­lat­ing the co­me­dian af­ter the show.

“I didn’t re­ally think about how I would play the part, I just did it as it came to me,” says Djalili. “I just wanted to make him as lov­able as pos­si­ble.”

Cer­tainly not every­one loved the idea of him tak­ing the role, and he has a let­ter to prove it. “Here I’ll read it to you,” he says, ri­fling through a moun­tain of break-a-leg cards piled on the ta­ble and pro­duc­ing the note.

“Dear Mr Djalili, as an ad­mirer of much of your work I am very sorry that I have to write to you with a com­plaint. I don’t have to in­form you of the dan­gers of racism. You come from an eth­nic mi­nor­ity your­self and I re­mem­ber a sketch from your show about pride and racial prej­u­dice.

“Nor do I have to re­mind you that we are liv­ing in a world af­ter the Holo­caust of the 20th cen­tury which led to the death of mil­lions of in­no­cent peo­ple.

“I was there­fore very sur­prised and dis­ap­pointed that you have agreed to play Fa­gin. That char­ac­ter is ev­ery­thing the Jew is sup­posed to be ac­cord­ing to an­ti­semitic leg­end — grasp­ing, dis­hon­est, crim­i­nal and pe­riph­ery to the com­mu­nity. By tak­ing part you are con­tribut­ing to racism of the worst kind… and you should know bet­ter.”

Djalili has clearly been af­fected by the let­ter and says he plans to in­vite the sen­der to see the show. The po­lit­i­cally-savvy stand-up hard­ened to heck­lers, who an­nounced his ar­rival in Oliver! with the state­ment: “An Ira­nian play­ing Fa­gin has noth­ing to do with the Ira­nian plot to wipe Is­rael off the face of the planet”, is also sen­si­tive enough to know of the po­ten­tial for caus­ing of­fence. “You know me,” he mum­bles. “I’m a good guy. Peo­ple just mis­read what I do.”

So in­stead of just shrug­ging his shoul­ders he did some re­search and is now de­lighted to tell any­one who asks that Charles Dick­ens made re­vi­sions to the char­ac­ter of Fa­gin around 1860 — “af­ter buy­ing a house from a Jewish fam­ily whom he liked very much”.

Djalili says he did not need to pur­chase prop­erty to de­velop an af­fec­tion for Jews. He just had to stand anx­iously be­side them in the wings of smoky com­edy clubs. “The first Jews I ever came across were in the com­edy in­dus­try and they im­me­di­ately be­came re­ally good friends,” re­calls the re­cip­i­ent of Ed­in­burgh’s Spirit of the Fringe Award in 1994. “Ivor Dem­bina, Ian Stone, Mark Maier (see Peo­ple, op­po­site) th­ese were my first pals on the cir­cuit, so I al­ways felt very close to Jews and grav­i­tated to­wards them be­cause we share that feel­ing of be­ing out­siders.”

It was along­side Dem­bina that Djalili claims to have found his feet with his show The Arab and The Jew in 1997. “As the Arab it was meant to be my show, but Ivor oc­cu­pied half of it,” he laughs. “It was one­liner af­ter one-liner and Ivor be­came my men­tor and took me un­der his wing.”

Hav­ing im­pressed audiences at Up The Creek, the bench­mark com­edy venue, cin­ema beck­oned and Djalili be­came the eth­nic ev­ery­man beloved by cast­ing direc­tors on both sides of the At­lantic, play­ing bib­li­cal camel sell­ers, Turk­ish bak­ery own­ers, Al­ge­rian traders…

For some time, his CV re­sem­bled a Mid­dle East­ern job cen­tre. But hav­ing paid his Hol­ly­wood dues, he grad­u­ated to play­ing Pi­casso op­po­site Andy Gar­cia’s Modigliani and con­fi­dant to Heath Ledger’s

‘AN EDGY CO­ME­DIAN CAN EVEN­TU­ALLY BE­COME SO EDGY HE DIS­AP­PEARS UP HIS OWN TUCHES’

Casanova. And he was given a one-man tele­vi­sion show for HBO. Amer­i­cans def­i­nitely get Djalili. West End audiences, it would seem, are get­ting him too, even though he was sure they wouldn’t.

“I was con­vinced when we started re­hears­ing that I would get the sack af­ter the first week and I didn’t re­ally care,” he says. “It was my wife, Annabelle, an ac­tress who’s been in a lot of mu­si­cals, who told me to stop mess­ing it up. She also re­minded me that it’s good to go main­stream. An edgy co­me­dian can even­tu­ally be­come so edgy he dis­ap­pears up his own tuches.”

Though he ad­mits to be­hav­ing like an “un­bri­dled horse” on stage, im­pro­vis­ing on a whim and toy­ing with Tevye’s did­dle did­dle dum, he is grate­ful to be tol­er­ated by the rest of the cast. He is also hop­ing for tol­er­ance when his new film

The In­fi­del, writ­ten by David Bad­diel, opens next year, in which he plays an East End Mus­lim taxi-driver who dis­cov­ers that he is adopted — and Jewish.

“I know, I know,” he says, aware that once again there will be some who feel he has crossed into for­bid­den ter­ri­tory. “It’s not like I haven’t had death threats be­fore. I got them when I did a spoof of EastEn­ders in my show on BBC2. In Mid­dle EastEn­ders I used the Mus­lim call to prayer as the last-or­ders bell in the pub. I got a lot of hate emails af­ter that — ‘you’re go­ing to hell and we are go­ing to kill you’, was the gist… I re­alised af­ter­wards that I had made a grave er­ror of judg­ment, but it was too late.”

Raised as a Ba­hai, which is an off­shoot of Is­lam, Djalili is ob­ser­vant and makes reg­u­lar pil­grim­ages to Haifa which is home for the Ba­hai World Cen­tre. “Of course peo­ple as­sume I am a Mus­lim,” he says. “Not that I have a prob­lem with that be­cause when you are an eth­nic mi­nor­ity do­ing well, every­one tries to claim you. But as a Ba­hai I don’t re­ject Mo­hammed. Nor any other faith, be­cause by re­ject­ing one, you re­ject them all.”

PHOTO: CATHER­INE ASH­MORE

Omid Djalili in Oliver!, and ( be­low) as BBC com­edy view­ers know him. He re­ceived death threats af­ter one of his jokes of­fended Mus­lims

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