The­atre can heal our wound

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - James In­verne

GROW­ING UP in Bournemouth, it was al­most holy writ: “when thou art seven or eight, thou shalt join the shul’s drama so­ci­ety and there thou shalt re­main, yea, even unto thy bar­mitz­vah year.” It cer­tainly was com­pul­sory in my house, as my fa­ther ran the so­ci­ety. Once a year, Dad would re­tire to the type­writer to pen a new script on a Jewish theme, with ju­di­ciously se­lected com­edy rou­tines from Not The Nine O’Clock News or Monty Python in­te­grated into the story of Moses or Sam­son (his play on the En­tebbe raid had scenes from Air­plane).

These were great and trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences for gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren, which none of us have for­got­ten – and not just for the mo­ment of in­credulity we all ex­pe­ri­enced see­ing The Life Of Brian for the first time and re­al­is­ing that, gasp, the Pythons had pla­gia­rised my fa­ther’s scripts.

Work­ing to­gether so in­ten­sively on these shows, learn­ing our lines, over­com­ing our fears, re­ceiv­ing ap­plause for our labours: these taught us lessons we took with us into adult­hood.

The­atre in Jewish his­tory has been by turns hailed and re­viled. The Tal­mud refers to “the­atres and cir­cuses of idol­a­tory” but by the same to­ken, the­atri­cal­ity is omni-present and po­tent in the religion and, em­a­nat­ing from there, in the wider cul­ture. What af­ter all is your av­er­age sy­n­a­gogue set-up but a prom­e­nade per­for­mance space, with the main stage, the bimma, in amongst the au­di­ence and a handy tra­verse up to the sec­ond stage where the the­atri­cal splen­dour of the ark awaits mo­ments of high drama?

What is the seder ser­vice if not a se­ries of dra­matic rev­e­la­tions? What are the notes pre­scribed for To­rah read­ings if not bril­liantly cal­cu­lated con­trol of a mu­si­cal-dra­matic flow?

The To­rah it­self could scarcely be more the­atri­cally-ori­en­tated. Oh, I know there are pages and pages of lists and we’re con­demned to be told who be­gat who at in­or­di­nate length (mind you, I’ve sat through some sim­i­larly dull ex­pe­ri­ences in Theatre­land) but the bits we re­mem­ber are the bits which spawned plays, mu­si­cals, films. Moses re­mov­ing his shoes be­fore the burn­ing bush and later don­ning his flip­pers for the part­ing of the Red Sea, a true coup de the­atre from the Almighty. Joseph telling his dream in­ter­pre­ta­tions to a rapt au­di­ence. Ja­cob act­ing the part in dress and voice of his brother Esau. The un­der­stand­ing of over­ar­ch­ing dra­matic ar­chi­tec­ture in the Five Books is mas­terly.

Small won­der then the reach and in­flu­ence of Jews and Jewish cul­ture in the arts world. They fill our stages. They creatively power the film in­dus­try. You can scarcely go to a high-level clas­si­cal con­cert with­out en­coun­ter­ing lead­ing Jewish mu­si­cians. And as a West End and Broad­way im­pre­sario once told me, “Jewish au­di­ences are hugely im­por­tant – a pro­ducer’s bread and but­ter.”).

All of which you know. As a peo­ple we are proud of the arts and of our artists. Of­ten in a slightly su­per­fi­cial, slightly boast­ful (ad­mit it) “look how much we’ve achieved” way.

But most art is based on ideas of struc­ture. Once you un­der­stand it, you can choose to de­velop it or even sub­vert it (it­self a kind of de­vel­op­ment). But un­less you know how the form works, you can’t master it. A so­ci­ety with the arts at its heart is a so­ci­ety which at an in­grained level un­der­stands struc­ture as a con­cept, and how to use struc­ture – in­clud­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal struc­tures – as a way of pro­gress­ing through life.

There was no sig­nif­i­cant Jewish pres­ence in the ri­ots that af­flicted the UK. The cur­rent po­lit­i­cal protests driv­ing Israel’s tent cities at present are or­dered and safe. Our un­der­stand­ing of the arts is re­lated to these truths.

When they’re work­ing out how to re­spond to the may­hem, the UK gov­ern­ment should take note of the po­ten­tial of the arts to help a so­ci­ety find its struc­ture. Why did Jewish Chil­dren’s The­atre start? To ease fric­tion be­tween Bournemouth’s Or­tho­dox and Re­form com­mu­ni­ties by bring­ing chil­dren to­gether. Through the­atre.

James In­verne is ed­i­tor of Gramo­phone

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