Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Stephen Laughton: One Jewish Boy

By | Published on Friday 6 March 2020

If you think this play’s title – ‘One Jewish Boy’ – sounds familiar, that’s probably because you heard about it when it was staged at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre at the very end of 2018. If you missed it that time around, the good news is that it’s headed to Trafalgar Studios this week.

It’s a love story, but also tackles the very pressing topic of the recent rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes, an issue thrown into even greater relief when its writer Stephen Laughton was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse when the play was first staged.

I spoke to him to find out more about the play and the themes it explores.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘One Jewish Boy’ is all about? What story does it tell?
SL: On one hand it’s about that one great love: the one that changes everything… changes you. We have this handsome, cheeky, nice Jewish boy from Highgate who meets this cool, clever, confident not Jewish-mixed-race girl from Peckham. It’s going swimmingly well, they’re both funny, both into it… then anti-Semitism rears its head, violently rears its head, and seriously messes this up for both of them.

Over time, she grows up and he grows in… they travel, get married, have a son, take that journey into your mid-thirties, before it all comes crashing down for them. The play explores racism, rising anti-Semitism and the things we inherit, the things we pass on.

There’s something about growing up in there, it has this broken timeline that spans more than a decade… ultimately though, it pushes modern anti-Semitism up front and central, the damage it does, the fear it creates. As these two, pretty sweet and sensitive people actually end up dealing with the toxicity of hate.

CM: Tell us more about the themes the play explores.
SL: When we think of anti-Semitism we tend to picture Nazis. It’s not just Nazis. It hurts me, so much to say this, but left-wing anti-Semitism is a big problem. And it’s rising, and we need to deal with it.

It always starts with a criticism of Israel. And let me be clear, the current Israeli administration is a fucked up right wing government doing fucked up right wing things. We should absolutely call that government out, but we should absolutely never be anti-Semitic in how we do it. We do that with the language of specificity, we start that specificity off by learning the differences between the words Jewish, Israel, Zionist. We on the left have to be careful of doing the work of the right.

Specifically regarding this play… anti-Israeli sentiment from what I thought were my left-wing political allies has recently tipped over into anti-Semitism and spawned something a little terrifying. Left-wing anti-Semitism is a gateway drug; I don’t think many left-wing people actually want to hurt me physically for Judaism, but it activates the people who do, because it makes the right-wing anti-Semitism, the Nazis and the fascists, that little bit more legitimate. The delivery mechanism of the play is a treatise on anti-Semitism, on rising anti-Semitism, which in turn is universal to pretty much all ‘isms’ and ‘obias’.

But it’s also a play about agency and accountability – a mid-thirties coming of age story if you will, as two people try to navigate the next chapter of their lives in sometimes really tough situations – in both their inner and outer worlds. The discriminations and prejudices they both feel are insidious to them, there’s a commonality of course, and a place of sharing where they both get it – but sometimes those commonalities get lost in all of the other bullshit in their lives – it’s essentially a play about two people from very different backgrounds just working out how to love one another, how to ask for the love they need…

CM: What inspired the story? And what made you want to deal with these themes in a play?
SL: The numbers… I clocked a rise in anti-Semitism in 2014. Then 2015 happened, then 2016, then 2017. Into 2018… a 34% year on year rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the UK. Too many to list – between beatings and murders and mass shootings, ten countries in Western Europe now have, in 2020, anti-Semitism at levels considered ‘disturbingly high’.

In the last few months alone we’ve seen Swastikas daubed on Jewish cemeteries in France; an anti-Semitic political campaign by Hungary’s far-right government; Labour Party MPs quitting their party and citing ingrained anti-Semitism; a Belgian carnival float caricaturing Orthodox Jews sitting on bags of money.

In 2018, France reported a 74% spike over the previous year in anti-Semitic incidents, including the murder of a Holocaust survivor in her own home. In Germany, over the same period, violent anti-Semitic attacks rose by 60%. Around Europe, where the popularity of the far right has been boosted by economic uncertainty and fears over migration, almost 90% of Jews believe that anti-Semitism has increased in their country in the last five years.

I personally started clocking what felt like this slow creep, a sense of something mounting, of the pervading… and the thing about anti-Semitism is that it’s insidious in its creep.

Meanwhile in theatre, I’ve felt like no one was talking about it. I mean, until now, there’s like a whole bunch of us in the West End right now talking about anti-Semitism, but when I wrote this two years ago, when we staged the original production, I can proudly – but with absolute sadness and a huge level of concern – say I was the first to talk about this very modern malign in British theatre.

We went into rehearsals on the original production a week after the Tree Of Life synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. It broke my heart that my play just felt so fucking relevant and in theatre no-one was talking about it.

There are few Jewish theatre makers in the UK to be fair, there’s a small group of us coming up, but no one else was really looking at it in their work – which is of course totally fine – so I kind of felt I had to… I certainly wanted to.

CM : So what are the aims of the play? What did you want to say?
SL: The aim is two-fold. But it’s mainly can you please just listen now? When any community says to the world we have a concern, we’re kind of scared and the world absolutely has a duty to listen. There’s a way to go and I’m still worried about where this spike has the potential to take us, but I feel in part that we are landing something important. Anti-Semitism is a massive problem in the west, and is tolerated in a way that would be inexcusable in any other community.

We need to knock it on the head, because if we look back to the last time the figures looked like this, we lost six million Jews to the Holocaust. To put that into actual context 66% of European Jews were murdered – a quarter of the entire Jewish population of the world, executed. The time before that, the pogroms pretty much punctuated half a millennium of Jewish persecution in Europe… We have to put a stop to this.

CM: When the play was first staged, you were targeted with anti-Semitic abuse. How do you feel about staging it a second time, in the light of that?
SL: Well it started up again last week… so I’m a little nervous, to be honest. It kind of got a little out of hand last time, it starts off with this pretty annoying online trolling nonsense, but the last time it certainly spiralled into the physical world, whether that was posters being ripped down, or Nazi graffiti, or even the moment when actual threatening letters were posted to my house.

After the original run of it all, I was having to keep this level of rational engagement – when I sometimes just wanted to scream, or hide – I didn’t realise how exhausting that was until it was all over. I kind of got really sick the month after the show came down because of this added extra level of stress and I kind of forgot all about it, so when the new wave of nonsense started last week, well, I’m feeling pretty triggered.

Like, I’m scared – where might it go this time, am I actually going to be harmed? But more than that, do I even have the emotional reserves to have to deal with this all over again? I guess I have to. I wrote the play, I have to be accountable for it. But it’s tough. I’m pretty thick skinned and I now know what I’ve bitten into, but when people are literally having a go at you, when some of that ‘having a go’ really does come from a place of personal hate, to know the person you’re engaging with, actually does just hate you… it’s hard to stay level.

I vaguely spiralled over the weekend, and my partner had to talk me down from a slight ledge. His advice was to lock up my social media and if anyone manages to get through to me, respond with love poems. Which is a great plan. But I do worry, and there are times when I do just want to yell. I wrote this play because I’ve been scared… Jews in 1930s Germany were also told they were over-reacting… and we know how that went…

But this stuff has to be low-level worry. For every idiot who attacked me, ten defended. And that’s marvellous… and look at how well the play was supported. We’re about to open in the West End. That’s extraordinary. My little knotty play… this wonderful platform, the chance to make it even better, and a whole new audience? That’s amazing!

CM: I was going to ask if there’s been an actual rise in anti-Semitic incidents, or if perhaps was it always there, but now easier to see and to perpetrate, ie, via the internet and mass media; but from what you’ve already said it seems clear it has actually increased.
SL: Yes, the stats are terrifying. For example, this is all official data…

The number of anti-Semitic incidents logged in the United Kingdom last year hit record levels for the fourth consecutive year in a row.

According to the European Commission, 50% of Europeans consider anti-Semitism a problem in their country, including majorities in Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Belgium and Austria. The worst examples of anti-Semitism were considered to be Holocaust denial, anti-Jewish material on the internet, graffiti, vandalism and hostility and threats to Jews in public places. Amongst Jews, an overwhelming majority feels that anti-Semitism has risen strongly in Europe since 2013.

The most recent figures from the UK’s Community Security Trust found there had been 892 anti-Semitic incidents in the UK in the first six months of 2019. This was the highest total for the first six months of any year.

Home Office data suggested that Jews were the second most commonly targeted group for religious hate crime – after Muslims – with 1326 offences in 2018-19, up from 672 the previous year.

In France, the National Human Rights Advisory Committee reported 541 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, which was a considerable increase from 311 the previous year, but well down from peaks in 2014, 2009 and the early 2000s.

German police recorded 307 anti-Semitic crimes in 2018, which was up from 233 the previous year.

In the US, the Anti Defamation League tracks anti-Semitic incidents. It found there had been 1879 in 2018, which was slightly down on 2017, but still at a historically high level. More than half of the hate crimes in New York City last year were attacks on Jewish people.

CM: Have you added to or redeveloped the play for its second run? In what ways has it changed?
SL: Yes! We’ve added on a year of the story for one and the shape of the play has changed a little, so I’ve thrown the whole team a set of – hopefully exciting, perhaps infuriating – sorry, loves! – challenges.

I am blessed to have been working with an amazing team, who are all – bar our LD who we lost to the National! – coming back to the show, so it’ll be ‘kind of maybe sometimes the same’ but also different. Rooted in what we’ve done, but we – including the play itself – have all grown up a little bit more and want to smash the play out of the Fringe into the real world.

So it’s making sure we keep the energy, the visceral sense of it, the sexiness but making sure we land this growing maturity.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? You’re an award-winning playwright, but how did that happen? Was it what you always wanted to do? What steps did you take to forge this career?
SL: I have no idea how it happened! Mainly luck, a bit of charm and a lot of tenacity. Writing was always just for me and I actually spent the first part of my career, in my twenties, being a producer in TV and film.

I wasn’t very good at it to be honest but managed to work on some really great projects and that took me quite a way, so about a decade ago, I was having a vague nervous breakdown about how I was becoming pretty successful in this field I didn’t love and wasn’t very good at, so I ran off to Australia to find myself and decided there, after blagging a job on a film magazine, that actually I should be a writer. I came back, did a masters degree and went at it.

It started well, though there was a tremendous crash around 2014, when I got royally fucked over on a TV project I co-created, that basically destroyed my confidence and made me lay down for a year. But then I shook myself off, got back on the bike so to speak – mainly because what the hell else can I do? – and then I bounced back into theatre, wrote ‘Screens’ which did well, then ‘Run’ which did better, and then ‘One Jewish Boy’.

Some short film and bits of TV again in between and it’s been getting recognised, which is wonderful. I just want to make really good work. The work is so important to me – more than ego, or success or anything else. Just landing this work that looks like it has resonance outside my mind, is pretty awesome.

CM: What would you say the highlights of your career have been thus far?
SL: Well, being published is always my favourite part. I’m a gay man, with no desire to have children. So, it’s basically the only way I can leave any kind of legacy! But it’s actually really exciting that as long as we have human civilisation a person can go to the British Library and read some shit that I wrote… that’s pretty cool.

And the last year has been amazing. I moved to New York last summer, I’m doing this writing residency in the Astrophysics Department of the American Museum Of Natural History.

I’m working with some of the greatest living astrophysicists working in the world today – like Rebecca Oppenheimer – who’s basically just the queen of everything. She’s recently been listed in both the National Geographic and InStyle Magazine’s kick-ass/bad-ass women lists – where she was A: the only scientist listed and B: beat Sharon Stone! You know she discovered Brown Dwarfs when she was like 23 or something – proved they even existed! When I was 23, I was basically just trying to get boys to kiss me. It’s taken me this long… I swear.

Anyway, AMNH, Neil De Grasse Tyson’s office is just down the way, Steven Soter and Jackie Faherty next door – I mean the people I share a floor with are just – well very exciting. There’s this project Rebecca is one of the leads on, a joint thing between the museum, Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab. Officially the Palomar Radial Velocity Instrument, in crude terms it’s a spectrograph that’s searching for planets orbiting nearby low-mass stars. Basically how do you find stuff when you point a telescope at bright shit? Like this…

So, I was working with the team that installed PARVI in Palomar, which was awesome. I helped cool it down with liquid nitrogen. When it finds aliens I’m going to be all up like, I cooled that shit down – so it could work – with liquid nitrogen…

Since I’ve been there I’ve been at AMNH I’ve been working on a whole new play, ‘Velocity’, that ties up the big bang with human reaction times and dark matter to explore mental illness in the LGBT community.

I want to write the greatest gay love story, that’ll smash you all to smithereens… and Rebecca – and an amazing biologist called Susan Perkins – helped me with the science on my first sci-fi short – it’s currently in post-production and the museum have given me access to the system they design their space shows on, so we’ll have some of the most accurate space footage ever used on film. The advice and input from these brilliant, brilliant people has been, well, stellar!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
I think, from this point on, I have five good years before I’m an old has-been. So I want my own TV series, I want to make some sci-fi movies, but before that I want a play on one of our big writing theatre stages – the National, the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Donmar, the Bush. All of them! They’re great theatres that I’ve always loved, so it would be epic to join those ranks. I want ‘One Jewish Boy’ to get to New York.

I always wanted to meet Harold Pinter. I definitely want to meet Tony Kushner and Pedro Almodovar.

I really want to make that movie.

And then when the world is done with me, I’ll get my PHD, make tenure at NYU or somewhere and live out my days…

CM: And finally, what’s coming up next for you?
SL: I have to scoot back to New York as soon as we get ‘One Jewish Boy’ up as we’re doing a workshop on ‘Velocity’ the week after. And then I have two TV things and a movie thing I’m not really allowed to talk about to finish, so before I get into trouble…

Then I’m taking the summer off – at least July.

‘One Jewish Boy’ is on at Trafalgar Studios from 10 Mar-4 Apr. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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