Fiona Leckerman chats to playwright Brian Rotman about his new show, analysing how Israel divides opinion among the UK’s Jewish community
Playwright Brian Rotman wrote his play A Land Without People in response to the reaction to the war in Gaza last summer. A professor of humanities at Ohio State University, mathematician, author and philosopher, Rotman returned to his house in Queens Park to find himself surrounded by a storm of news coverage.
“Somehow, I got caught up in my own Jewishness. There was condemnation of Israel along with defence of Israel and it became very clear to me that, as a secular Jew, I had to re-examine my thinking.”
This intense reaction inspired and prompted Rotman to pen the play, which will be staged at the Courtyard Theatre at the start of July.
Directed by renowned American theatre director and Rotman’s wife, Lesley Ferris, he hopes to provoke another type of reaction and he says he is intrigued as to “what effect this might have on the on-going discussion about Israel that divides British Jewry.”
Rotman’s jet-lagged voice is a little grizzly when we speak – he has just landed after the seven hour flight from Ohio via New York. He apologises for being sleepy, but he is nothing of the sort. He is exceptionally passionate and outspoken on the subject of his new play which took him four months to write. A Land Without People is a three act play that chronicles the events that lead up to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.
For Rotman, the process of writing the play comes across as a real journey of understanding and personal reflection. “I educated myself through the writing of the play as it clarified a great deal to me. I began to be aware of the hugely contentious thoughts concerning Israel,” he says. “But I was determined to stick to the historical truths, which I researched thoroughly making a genuine attempt on my part to say this is the true history. In a sense the majority of the play is to do with Britain. The British role was crucial.”
Born and raised in the East End, Rotman was a member of Habonin, kept kosher, had a barmitzvah and participated fully in a Jewish way of life.
He helped out in his father’s sweet shop and was scolded for miscalculations.
His father pushed him towards a career in accountancy, which lead him to read mathematics at university, but Rotman has always felt that he was miscast as a mathematician because what interested him more was the ‘why?’ behind the numbers rather than the solutions.
Moving to America in the early 90s, he watched his American contemporaries, noticing a difference in transatlantic Jews. When he returned to London last summer the war in Gaza together with the boycott by the Tricycle Theatre persuaded him to reconnect with his Jewish history, so he began to research the play.
The first act focuses on the white paper issued in 1939 by the British government, which betrayed the promise made in the Balfour declaration.
Rotman spent hours reading through the 80,000 words that are documented and then collapsing it down into 10 minutes of stage time.
The second act jumps over the Second World War and the Holocaust, beginning in 1946-7. It is entirely concerned with Earnest Bevan’s refusal to allow displaced people and survivors of the Holocaust to go to Palestine, until he washed his hands of the problem passed it over to the UN.
The final act is concerned with how the UN granted a stretch of land to the Jewish population and how the Jews enlarged their territory by reclaiming land, which saw resident Palestinian populations removed.
The play has five actors as 17 historically named figures, including Weizmann, Herzl, Bevan and Golda Mier. “I give them lines and speeches,” Rotman says. “Sometimes I was able to give them exactly what was said by using what I found in actual documents and letters.”
Rotman, who co-founded the London fringe theatre company Mouth and Trousers, with his wife in the 1980s. He says: “I live theatre. It has an extraordinary unique effect on the process of communication. There is nothing similar to the visceral, corporeal nature of it.”
He adds: “I’m very excited to see the text brought to life. I’m interested to see how that affects people and if it allows space to continue the conversation.”
The challenge ahead for Rotman is in the staging of A Land Without People, and whether the historical subject matter can not only translate to a modern audience but also provoke discussion.
• A Land Without People runs from 9 July to 1 August at the Courtyard Theatre. palindromeproductions.org