Interview: Stephen Laughton

Stephen Laughton’s previous play, Run, came to our stages a couple of years ago which told the story of a Jewish teenager embarking on his first same sex relationship.  Laughton has returned to our stages this winter with One Jewish Boy – a play about anti-semitism, which in turn has been on the receiving end of a barrage of anti-semitism pushing it in to the national newspapers this November. It’s running at The Old Red Lion Theatre (London) until Jan 5th 2019 and we took this opportunity to catch up with Stephen about this play, what inspired it and why it’s such an important piece.

TW: Accounts of anti-semitism

Interview by Amie Taylor

AT: In your own words, what is this piece about?

SL: It’s set between 2009 and 2018, we start at the end of a relationship between a Jewish man and a bi-racial woman. It charts the relationship from when they first meet in 2009, just after he gets beaten up on Hampstead Heath. But the play largely runs backwards and it looks at how anti-semitism is real in front of them and the growing anti-semitism. It charts what that does to their relationship. The bi-racial woman is light skinned, so both of them are white-passing and have white privilege in their interactions with the outside world, but are still surrounded by racism, which becomes like a pressure cooker for them. 

AT: What inspired you to write this piece?

SL: It was a few things all coming together. I’ve been feeling anti-semitism in a really tangible way, small ways, but in a way that I haven’t seen it previously.  Especially over the past four years. I touched on it in my previous play. We had the war in 2014, and that was where Run came from and things that had happened in that summer.  For example, I was outside the BBC building and there were pro-Palestine demonstrations happening, and I came out and got given a flyer by a lad that was on the pro-Palestinian demonstration and he saw my tattoo and said ‘nice tattoo’ and I said ‘Thanks, it’s Hebrew -‘ and I didn’t get any further before he grabbed my wrist and shouted ‘We’ve got a Jew!’ and it was the first time I felt this instant shame, fury and fear.  I was annoyed at the idiocy of the comment.  And I think that’s one of the things that has continued is that conflation with Judaism and Israel.

I had another experience when I met a former MP from the Labour party, and we got on to talking about my play and we got on to anti-semitism in the labour party and Israel and the conflation between Judaism and Israel. And he told me that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t an anti-semite, I explained that some of the things he does are slightly problematic and that I feel quite let down by him, for instance releasing a broadcast in which he said he wasn’t anti-semitic on a Friday night, presumably communications managers must have told him if you’re going to give a broadcast to the Jewish community, don’t do it on a Friday night because it’s Shabbat, the fact that he didn’t take that advice was a really stupid move. 

So it’s been inspired by the anti-semitism, especially around the Israel question, as well as things that have happened to me, conversations that I’m seeing. I have these conversations with other Jewish theatre-makers, how we’re often talking about other -isms and -phobias, but never anti-semitism. 

Then I was asked to write a short piece as part of a night, and I’d been wanting to test out and idea I’d had to write a play about anti-semitism, to take these really big scenes and put them in domestic situations.  I also wanted to make them funny as well. Katy from the Old Red Lion came to watch that evening, and wanted to have a further conversation about this piece and writing it in to a full length play. 

AT: What audience are you targeting for this and what are you hoping they will away?

SL: That’s a really interesting question, because I never write with a particular audience in mind, but I got told earlier this year that my audience is queer and Jewish, and in many ways that’s a great audience to have, but it was told to me in a really detrimental way. 

I normally wouldn’t worry about this, though of course as a playwright you’d hope as you develop your career you’d be broadening your audience. So originally in this piece the characters were queer, it was originally two women, but as the piece developed it became clear that the violence wouldn’t work in that setting. A lot of anti-semitic violence towards women is sexual, and that wasn’t a place I wanted to go – so I re-wrote the part as male.  And in the writing it became clear that they should have a child, and I wanted that child to be biologically both of theirs. So the story needed to be centred around a heterosexual couple. 

So I hope it will attract a broader audience due to this broader representation, and I’m hoping to reach an audience that doesn’t necessarily know about anti-semitism. It’s also need it to reach an audience in my generation – you know, under 40s, left-wing, urbanites, who might inadvertently mix up jews and Israel and the politics there. I also hope to change the language around Israel. I wanted to reach that audience to change the language that we use when talking about anti-semitism and jews and Israel. When we talk politics in this country, when we talk about political parties and we blame a person – a political, whether it’s Theresa May, or Corbyn or Jeremy Hunt, but when we talk about Israel, we don’t do that, we talk about Israel, holding the entire country to account, when only about 32% of the voting population in that country voted in their Prime Minister and that policy – yet Jews across the world are being held accountable. So I wanted to really look at that and change that dialogue. 

Book Now to see One Jewish Boy, running at The Old Red Lion Theatre until Jan 5th 2019.

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