James Inverne

Actors’ readings of South Africa’s case at the Hague miss the real drama

If only Susan Sarandon, among many others, had given stage time to Israel's efforts to protect civilians and Hamas's role in killing both peoples
Susan Sarandon reads (just) the prosecution case against Israel, in the Palestine Festival of Literature YouTube video. (screen grab).
Dozens of formerly-respected actors have filmed a digital reading of South Africa’s court case accusing Israel of genocide — but only the prosecution!
Imagine if a theatre company decided to perform a version of Shakespeare’s Othello with all evidence of Desdemona’s innocence, and of Iago’s evil intentions, cut out. Or a Macbeth carefully edited to make Macduff seem a calculating traitor, the ruthless murder of his wife and children carefully omitted, while gone would be any reference to Macbeth’s nefarious scheming. All of this would doubtless be described as, at best, a radical piece of experimentalism, at worst cultural vandalism — and certainly a deformation of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. No reputable actor, I suspect, would touch such an idea. And yet, more than two dozen noted British and American thespians have just taken part in something far worse; a grotesque theatrical distortion of South Africa’s genocide hearing against Israel at the International Court of Justice. This is a hugely important judicial proceeding that has the potential to impact the lives of people around the world, not least in Israel — yet, astoundingly, the actors took part in a reading of only the prosecution speeches.

Bear in mind that these court proceedings are an initial stage. It may yet be determined that the case has no plausibility at all, and that Israel is completely innocent. Yet these actors seemingly do not believe in a world where a defense case should be given any weight or exposure — at least not when the Jewish state is involved — nor, by inference, in the age-old maxim “innocent until proven guilty.”

It should come as no surprise, perhaps, since some of these actors — Steve Coogan and Charles Dance, among them — signed on to a letter denouncing Israel’s military actions in Gaza mere days after Israel began to fight back, following the launching of this war with unprecedented brutality by Hamas. That letter failed to condemn Hamas, or even acknowledge their mass rapes, mutilations, murders, burnings, torture, branding and kidnapping of Israeli civilians (many of them peace activists, many children including babies), the thousands of missiles and rockets launched indiscriminately into Israel, and the insistence of senior Hamas leaders, oft-repeated, that they plan to carry out similar attacks many times in the future. For Coogan, Dance and their co-signatories, Israelis are apparently not even good enough to mourn (after some pushback, Coogan belatedly condemned Hamas nearly a week later, weakly suggesting, “It goes without saying” — er, no, it doesn’t).

Now comes this extraordinary twisting of a judicial proceeding, a piece of online theatre in which the prosecution is amplified and the defense utterly silenced. Joining Dance and Coogan are such serial Israel-bashers as Susan Sarandon and Wallace Shawn. And not only is it immoral and anti-democratic, it isn’t even good theatre. Drama thrives on conflict, and the more you can show each side of the conflict, the richer it is. Think how much better a dramatic reading would have been had it included Israel’s defense lawyers, among them the UK’s Malcolm Shaw, outraged at what they insist is the inversion of justice — showing how Hamas have declared (in their founding charter, and in many interviews with Hamas leaders) and continually attempted to carry out genocide in Israel, culminating in October 7th and the slaughtering of some 1,200 Israelis in the most sadistic ways imaginable.

The tension could have built as we watched them enumerate the many ways Israel has tried to limit loss of Gazan civilian life — the establishment of safe passages, the facilitation and supply of aid, the thousands and thousands of leaflets, phone calls and texts to Gazans warning where the next fighting will be, the enabling of field hospitals on land and sea, the many official declarations and standing IDF orders that civilians are not to be targets. All this while — and how’s this for dramatic conflict? — Hamas, contend Israel, is doing its utmost to maximize the danger to Gazan innocents, with fighters disguised and embedded with civilians, ambulances used as military transports, hospitals and UN schools and mosques used as command and control centers and launch sites, even children’s bedrooms used to hide arms caches and attack tunnels. Meanwhile, Hamas shoots at civilians on an IDF safe route, while Israeli soldiers risk their lives defending the Gazans. You can’t call it untheatrical. Disgusting, yes. Untheatrical, no.

Now the plot thickens. Because our actors could easily add more context. They could have included a shadowy scene where someone alleges South Africa’s bias and possible connections to the conflict, pointing out that the South African Minister of International Relations flew to Tehran for a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister just days after the war started; that South Africa first accused Israel of being responsible for the violence on October 8th, before Israel had even started its fightback (in other words, Israel was to blame for the slaughter and mass rape of its own people). That, according to Dr. Frans Cronje, former CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, South Africa had made an arrangement with Iran to launch a lawfare campaign against Israel (“The South African government is the same thing as Hamas, it’s an Iranian proxy” he told Chai FM, “And its role in the war is to fight the ideological and ideas war to stigmatize Jews around the world, and the two wars work together, they feed off each other, and that is how to understand SA’s case at the Hague. South Africa’s foreign policy structures have been sold to the Iranians…It’s a strategic transaction…If that succeeds, it is very difficult to imagine how Israel survives into the long term.”).

All of this would make for a terrifically involving dramatic canvas. And theatre can boast of a storied history of dramatized court cases and official enquiries — the then-Tricycle (now Kiln) Theatre in Kilburn ran a superb series of them under Nicholas Kent’s artistic directorship, while David Hare’s 2004 The Permanent Way was a brilliant verbatim investigation into the sometimes fatal effects of privatization of the UK railways. But as far as I remember, all of those attempted to show the different sides of their arguments, to do the most basic dramatic work of searching for the humanity, the motivations, in all its characters. This pathetic piece of ICJ-themed agitprop from the British actors, recorded for the Palestine Festival of Literature, isn’t even theatre — the actors have given up the mantle of artists, becoming mere loudmouth celebrities using their fame to beat a drum for the side that they have picked. Which happens to be the side of baby-killing, mass-raping, proscribed terrorist group Hamas.

Nobody should pretend this is worthy of their profession. And the greatest tragedy is that it stands to affect real-world geopolitics since, as the Iranian dictators know all too well, PR is Hamas’s most potent weapon. Still, they might have at least thought to give it a catchy title. I’ve got one suggestion: “The Useful Idiots.”

About the Author
James Inverne is a playwright, cultural critic and the author of The Faber Pocket Guide To Musicals. He was formerly the editor of Gramophone Magazine, and performing arts correspondent for Time Magazine. He has written for many publications including the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Sunday Telegraph, and published five books. His play "A Walk With Mr. Heifetz" was premiered Off-Broadway.
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