Culture

Tikkun Olam review – gripping dissection of identity politics and the culture wars

This play’s name comes from the religious concept of repairing or rebuilding the world in Judaism, though you’re never sure whether it is meant ironically. What is clear is the desperately topical nature of playwright Teunkie Van Der Sluijs’ debut with its culture wars, identity politics and, at the centre, a discussion about whom we choose to memorialise and why.

An aspiring MP, Steve Alexander (Jake Fairbrother), is running his election campaign on a proposed Holocaust memorial near Parliament Square in the hope to win constituency votes and rehabilitate his party against charges of antisemitism (the Labour party is never mentioned by name).

His researcher Dan (Luke Thompson) – a posh boy with an annoying habit of saying “touché” a lot – is meeting influential Jewish blogger Leah (Debbie Korley) to win her support for the campaign, but almost botches the job when he mistakes her for someone who has turned up for the “knife crime meeting” because she happens to be Black as well as Jewish. A local woman (Diana Quick) intermittently pops up to protest about the planned memorial, insisting that she is “not bigoted” but questioning why a memorial for Jewish victims should sit in her local park. The Holocaust, she says, represents Europe’s war – and guilt – not Britain’s.

The play – one of three winners of Original Theatre Company’s Originals Playwriting award – looks at the intersections of Black and Jewish identity, as well as the interface between genuine remembrance and co-opting causes as “prestige projects”. Van Der Sluijs has a real desire to probe ideas beneath the surface and shows promise as a punchy political playwright with an eloquent flair.

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Staged as an online reading under the direction of Michael Boyd, the acting is constrained by the form and by the static nature of the play: the drama does not lie in character or plot but the discussion of ideas. So it is an achievement that it so gripping and never feels inert. There is a nice, sparky repartee between Leah and Dan and you wish for more of this, alongside the intellectual tennis. Dan reveals himself to be a thoroughly objectionable character whose “owning up” to his white, male privilege is glib, expedient, perhaps even cynical. Leah seems to see through it so it is unconvincing when the pair begin a romance – and one which has little bearing on the drama or its outcome.

The performances are robust, even with some slightly halting moments, and Leah makes a powerful speech at the end which pulls the rug from under the feet of the characters and leaves us weighing up her words too.

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