conducted by Eckart Voigts and Sarah J. Ablett
London, 25 March 2017; updated 7 May 2019
EV: What is your family background and how would you describe your relationship to Great Britain or more specifically England?
DS: I was married to someone with a German-Jewish background which is very different from my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ Polish-Russian background. I worked recently with a composer who would express terrible guilt about her white English background. And I said: ‘Well, actually, there are many things I appreciate about England. My great-grandparents came from Russia, and I frankly wouldn’t want to go back there.’ It didn’t suit them, and I don’t think it would suit me. The way of life isn’t anything I feel drawn to. Although funnily enough my son, who is a filmmaker, went to Moscow recently and he said he had felt quite at home there. He felt a sense of kinship.
I think one of the things that has made England accessible for immigrants and refugees over the years, and one of the things I love about it, is ‘the eccentric’, ‘the maverick’. The arts are a place where they show up a lot, fashion is another, politics as well. That’s one of the great beauties of this culture that there is a lot of room for the eccentrics. What all these people have in common is that they are quite individualist, independent spirited, and maverick.
SJA: But doesn’t that also…
DS: … connect with being Jewish? Yes. But then again, a lot of Jews are conformist. I have a friend who is an accountant and he says: ‘I don’t know how you can be a writer.’ You come to this place, and you want safety and security, and you become very bourgeois. So, that’s another route Jews can go, and a lot of them do in this country. You know, choosing professions like lawyer or doctor, paying the mortgage, behaving oneself, there is a lot of that thinking, too. So, you can go different ways.
SJA: But that would be kind of the opposite side of the same coin, right?
DS: Yeah, well maybe. One is playing with danger, and one is living on the edge, and one is trying to keep the edge away. Maybe we don’t have to be defined by anything anymore. Maybe that’s what the twenty-first century is about. There are markers. They are useful. But they are not everything. They are like little touchstones and marks on the map. But they are never going to capture the entire spirit of the countryside.
EV: Is there any sense of identity among British-Jewish theatre makers?
DS: No, I wouldn’t say there is. I think there is a recognition, a kind of familiarity, but I don’t think anyone would ever say ‘we’ or ‘us’. There is an acknowledgement. I mean, we speak shorthand language, so there is a connecting element, it’s kind of an understanding, but you wouldn’t say there is a ‘we’. I saw a play at the Park Theatre A Dark Night in Dalston (2017) [by Stewart Permutt], which is about a young orthodox Jewish man who finds himself, as Shabbat falls, stuck on the street in Dalston. This woman takes him in, and it is about the night they spend together.It’s like the play is rehearsing out how Jews live and the British way. So, there’s a bit of that, but it tends to be a bit more sophisticated, really. It’s much more of a personal voice processing.
EV: Could you tell us something about your own new play? How did you come about the idea for Song of Dina (2019)?
DS: My Hebrew name is Dina. I’ve grown up with that name, and weirdly, or maybe not weirdly, all the members of my family have had that name. And actually, what triggered it was, I go every year to a retreat centre in Spain, where I run a writing course. I was there a couple of years ago when there was a series of intensive bombing of Gaza. I found myself talking with a woman who was into creating rituals across faith about how the Bible could in some way be seen as a document written in trauma, after the destruction of the first temple and exile. So, at the very heart of Jewish consciousness is profound psychic, as well as physical, wounding and this informs everything. What is fascinating is that what was written out was the divine feminine, so the goddess was eradicated. And yet there is a lot of archaeological evidence, before and during the time of the first temple, of the presence of a divine feminine element, next to Jehovah there was the goddess Asherah. The early, early Jewish people were much more like the early, early Canaanite people in their polytheistic practices. Trauma played a significant role in creating the single male god. There wasn’t a single god before. It is embedded in the Bible, and for me, this connects with what was going on in the Middle East, the deep, deep problem: the divine feminine has been cut out of the equation. It is out of balance, and we need to restore the feminine element at source. Until that’s done, it will continue forever. We’ve got to dig down to the heart of the wounding.
The cross-faith ritual woman said, ‘You’re a writer, write about it’. And I went to bed that night thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ I woke up the next morning with a crystal-clear vision, ‘You need to tell Dina’s story from her point of view’, because she is the link, she is the bridge back to the divine feminine. You go to the heart of the Jewish family, you go to the heart of the Jewish people, you go to the first Israel, and you go to his relationship with his daughter, and you let the daughter speak, and you do it with music, and then people will be out of the head-zone, they won’t fall into positions and arguments, you will take them somewhere much more deep, much more spiritual, and you will open up this thing, and basically deconstruct and release what the Bible is holding, but has lost. It’s about reconnecting with the feminine.
EV: We very much admired the language, like the Bible in some ways.
DS: Maurice Chernick [musical collaborator on Song of Dina] and I went to school together in Liverpool, and we both learned Hebrew. So, we have the text next to us as we work. Hebrew is an amazingly potent symbolic language. It is almost like a divine language, it gives, it unlocks, you know.If you can understand each letter, it’s like a code. A code to something really essential, a kind of energy.
SJA: Which can also be found in the dichotomies, like Dina being the one who judges, but also the one who is being judged.
DS: Holding it all, polarities and contradictions too, that’s the heightened consciousness. It seems to me that humankind is at this moment in our development in transition from a three-dimensional awareness into a more sophisticated multi-dimensional awareness, and that’s why we’re all a bit discombobulated. That’s why a lot of the old polarisation is getting stronger, but that’s because of this breaking down, and we’re going to evolve away from it. That’s what my work is all about. It’s about integration, and holding polarity, because as soon as you are going to deny any aspect of it, you actually heighten its damaging potency, so you need to create a kind of holistic awareness.
SJA: That’s beautiful, like the word ‘shemah’, ‘hear me’, right?
DS: It’s from a prayer. Every day you say ‘shemah’ in Israel and it’s in the Mezuzah. This is an essential Jewish prayer that practicing Jews say every day, and we’re saying, ‘Look at it again, and listen. Someone’s asking you to listen, and it isn’t the god you think’. She is saying ‘shemah Israel’, she is saying, ‘Hear me father. My father, Israel’.
SJA: The patriarchal order?
DS: Yes, and he hasn’t listened to her. There is so much in that story. It is so current because there’s much deceit and trickery that goes on in our family, it’s incredible. [laughs]
SJA: Shemah starts with the ‘Sh’, which is also like silence…
DS: And the entire piece also ends ‘Sh’…
SJA: I had to hear it to realise.
DS: It’s a libretto. You know there’s a section in that, which is ‘Woman of Worth’, and that again is an iconic Jewish prayer, and we’re taking it apart again.
EV: It’s very performative, too, like a liturgy.
SJA: Like going back to that pre-linguistic pattern or order. Would you say it was the trauma or the wound that caused that writing?
DS: It’s the exile and the destruction of the temple. In the first temple there was the wooden pillar, Asherah’s presence, like a totem pole. These pillars were all over the place in Jewish homes. Mostly the women worshipped Asherah. She was like a fertility goddess, the consort of Jehovah. Actually, there’s a theory that on the walls of the first temple there were pomegranate trees and snakes. They integrated the snake as well, so the story of Eden comes from the destruction of the temple: we’re thrown out of the temple. It’s all about having your home destroyed and being sent to exile.
SJA: And blaming it on the woman, or why would it?
DS: That’s a very interesting question. Why was it blamed on the woman? I don’t know the answer to that. And then the woman was pushed out. I mean, there are different theories, but that’s one theory which rung for me.
EV: Do you think about audiences when you write?
DS: You see, the thing about others and my work is, I think I have to create the world, the structures for it to exist. If you’re coming from somewhere else and you’re finding a new voice, you’ve got to create structures that will express it. So, the thing I’ve often found is, I’m searching for ways to make the work truly as it ought to be made, because the structures don’t quite exist. So, there’s a bit of a sense of going out in the jungle. How do I make this? When I do it within the constructs that exist, I feel I can only go so far. There’s a lot of work, which I have been doing more recently that is kind of, ‘How do we do this?’ I’ve been searching for partners to do it with, and fortunately I’m finding like-minded people.
I’m going to America in a couple of weeks to do a workshop on Waltz with Me (2019), which follows the story of a woman called Maggie and her relationship with Christianity and Catholicism. The woman who becomes her inspiration is Cornelia Connelly, who was a wife and mother in 19th-century Philadelphia and then went down to the South with her husband and ended up becoming a Catholic nun who went to Britain and founded an order of nuns and schools. Cornelia had to deal with the breakdown of her marriage because her ex-husband wanted to be a priest and this led to her finding her own spiritual calling in the world.
In a way, it’s a sequel to Kindertransport (1993). But not as you would expect, because it is in a sense the experience of being separated from her children from the mother’s point of view. To create this work, the order of nuns has helped me. And I’ve been to an Ash Wednesday service in church. The play has been built through the community people who have been inspired by Cornelia’s life. There’s an application still pending at the Vatican to make her a Saint and the research for the play drew deeply on that application. So, I’m going to these religious, mystical, spiritual stories. I feel that theatre started out in the very, very beginning as shamanic ritual, where people would gather together in the cave. I love that film of Werner Herzog Caves of Forgotten Dreams (2010). And you see these images on the walls and you imagine the fire burning in the cave and the Shaman would travel to the spirit world to bring back healing for the community. And there wasn’t ever a question of whether there was a spirit world, or whether there were spirits; of course, there were. And theatre is a medium within the cave of accessing the spiritual world. This is our form. I draw a lot of inspiration from this idea for my theatre making, and I do it through writing initially. The writing is doing the map for people to then go on the journey, or the architect’s plan to build the building. I am about creating theatre experiences which are about traveling to the inner realms and the eternal dimensions.
SJA: Going back to the origin?
DS: It’s this idea of integration, going back to the very beginnings. To do something which brings things together. We’ve gone through the rationalist enlightenment era, we now have to integrate that with a deeper, more ancient, spiritual sphere. We let go of things to have enlightenment. Great! Let’s bring that back together, now. So, art is always, at the heart for me, integrating all these elements.
DS: Yes, and I would say it’s profoundly spiritual. Contemporary British theatre it not about spirituality at all. It’s anti-spiritual, and I would say on a profound level it is also anti-feminine. It doesn’t give women a voice on the whole. I mean, you only speak in a certain way within that tradition. That’s why I want to create something else. I just want to embrace all of it and bring it together in a very essential way.
SJA: Regarding the role of women I found the scene where Dina is locked in the trunk in Song of Dina very disturbing.
DS: Well, how many women, or how many people know that experience. I mean, men too. We went to see Moonlight (2017), the movie, and my partner and I just turned to each other and said, ‘Men have been so damaged by patriarchy, too.’ It might look on the surface to us all that men have only benefitted, it’s just so debilitating, whole parts of yourself have to be denied, don’t they?
Maybe it’s okay to feel difficult about it. And maybe music is a key thing here, because maybe the music will hold these different dimensions together.
At the end of Song of Dina, she gives birth to the daughter from her encounter with Shechem from another tribe that may or may not have been rape. Dina blesses her daughter as she surrenders her to an angel. She trusts that in later life she will be reunited with her daughter. The two will have a relationship. She will come to Egypt. So, she holds the separation and the reunion, and that’s the bigness of Dina. She can hold both.
EV: It brought me to the idea of diaspora. I mean, Jewish culture is an expert in that.
DS: In being exiled from your home.
EV: And that’s going to be increasingly important to address.
DS: To hold the letting go of who we think we are.
EV: If you put Kindertransport on in Germany today, people would think ‘refugee crisis’, immediately. It’s very topical.
DS: I’ve had a lot of enquiries about productions recently. I guess we’re all going to have to let go of the ways in which we think the world is in order for us to survive, of who we think we are, of what we think we are, of how we think we are, of what we think life is about, even things we think are right, notions of right and wrong. We got to let go of all of that, because we need to get somewhere else.
EV: But where are we going?
DS: Where do you want to go? Because you get to create it. Maybe all you need to do is follow your heart and do what is true.
EV: Try not to be an idiot. That’s a fair achievement, I think.
DS: Or maybe, enjoy being an idiot. You know, it’s fine to be an idiot, the fool has a place. It’s very wise in King Lear.
EV: We saw a Shakespeare production of King Lear (RSC Stratford, 2016), the Antony Sher one.
DS: I saw him play the Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I wrote a letter to him, actually, saying that I had really enjoyed it, but what I had to question was the way he enacted the taking of the heart as if it was a Jewish ritual. There is no Jewish ritual for cutting out someone’s heart, it doesn’t exist. In fact, it would be forbidden.
EV: Well, Shakespeare is not an expert.
DS: Yes, but Sher did it as if it was a Jewish ritual. He put on his tallis, did the whole thing. So, it kind of plays into all of those blood libel ideas of old Christian superstitious notions that Jews have all these rituals for killing Christians. He wrote back to me. I can’t remember, his reply was very nice, and quite interesting, but I can’t remember what it was now.
EV: What kind of text would you love to write back to? Or have you written back to in the sense of ‘I’m so fascinated about this text’?
DS: I’ve always been fascinated by the Tudors, especially by Anne Boleyn. I love the play about her that Howard Brenton did a few years ago. You see, the whole story about the Reformation is about Henry wanting to marry Anne, a radical Protestant. She was the force behind it. It wasn’t just about him marrying her, she politicised him, she made him Protestant. He really was a Catholic. If you see it that way, the Reformation is down to a woman. That’s what I love about British culture, that actually, women have shaped this country invisibly, but not totally invisibly. I mean the two most greatly acknowledged monarchs in a patriarchal society are women.
So, as a woman artist, there’s hope here. Because there is a strong tradition of strong women having a massive impact, dark and light.
SJA: What’s your thoughts on Theresa May, if I may ask a political question?
DS: I don’t relate to her at all. I suspect she’s a very bright woman. I wonder if it’s a challenge. I think she’s very ambitious. I don’t know. I can’t tell.
I still haven’t said which text I’d like to do… Oh, I tell you the one story I want to tell. There are two actually. One is Elizabeth I’s death. She refused to sit down for about three days. She was not well and they finally got her to lie down. For three days she kept walking around. It’s the process of her dying, I want to do that. It’s not what you associate with Elizabeth I and it’s about having to let go of everything. She died peacefully in the end. But she fought it. And what was going on in her mind for those three days? You know, she was walking and she refused to go to sleep. She wouldn’t eat or drink. She was in some kind of state.
SJA: Like a meditation.
DS: Kind of weird, yes. You get very spacey when you go on a religious mystical fast. You do three days of fasting and you go crazy. You go into this sleepless trance.
The other play I want to do is about a college I went to in Cambridge. Oliver Cromwell went there. After the monarchy came back, the Restoration, they dug up his body and dismembered it. But they say that the head was buried in the grounds of the college. So, I want to do a monologue by Oliver Cromwell’s head, because that period of British history really fascinates me.
SJA: That sounds so interesting. Do you have any other exciting projects?
DS: I’ve been in contact with a radio producer called ‘Domesday’ about apiece I want to do about Britain. I’ve felt the British national wound is the invasion by various different groups, like the Viking and the Romans. I think the big one in the contemporary mindset is the Norman invasion, because it was so successful and it was so annihilating for Anglos-Saxon culture.
It seems to me the vote to leave the European Union was that wound speaking and asking to be acknowledged. It was like unconscious forces driving it. There were people saying, ‘I wanted change,’ but they didn’t want that entirely. Some of them argued it was about immigration, and I do feel that, but I think overall there were unconscious forces, and I think it’s connected to the ancient wounding, the terror.
EV: I remember in the 80s I was in Dover and there was this discussion about whether they should build the channel tunnel. And I thought, ‘well, what’s wrong with the tunnel, it’s like a bridge, you know, it’s…’
EV: It is terrifying, the idea of being invaded.
DS: But you see it has happened. 1066 was devastating. I think the British Empire was a result of it and the same with the Spanish. When you look at how the Spanish felt about the Moorish invasion, although it was incredibly beneficial to Spanish culture. It’s this sense of an outsider coming whole-sail and just taking over. So, anyway, my project for the radio is that I want to write a contemporary poem based on the Bayeux Tapestry, telling the entire story, but going around the whole country and getting young people from 5-year-olds to 20-ish-year-olds to read lines. So, we record it in a way that all different parts, particularly parts of the country that were very relevant in the battle in 1066, are represented, like Stamford Bridge, where Harold fought the Vikings, or Hastings.
EV: How do you generally achieve this kind of diversity in style?
DS: It’s about listening. It’s a skill which we all need to develop. For my play Land of the Free (2019) I listened to Americans. When actors read these roles, they ask, ‘How did you write this? You’re English!’ I interviewed a lot of people and I listened. I am the medium, the messenger. That’s the point of the work. Heeding the inner world and the essential elements to bring back healing for the community. And listening to human experience, particularly where there is suffering, and giving it back to get beyond it. It is also honouring what caused the suffering. And I do feel like this time is a crucial time, that we are transitioning now. And that we have to. And we have to shed the old skins. It’s painful. But shedding skins is ultimately renewal. My work is my contribution to help people get through this transitional time.
EV: What would you say is the most Jewish of your plays?
DS: I think Song of Dina is the most overtly Jewish piece. Kindertransport kind of is, but it is more about mothers and daughters. It more speaks of that essential feminine relation, and the relationship with the abandoning mother. Song of Dina contains Hebrew and explores the essential Jewish family, but it’s not just for Jews.
SJA: Would you say your work is political?
DS: My work is deeply political and spiritual in a quintessential way. That’s my purpose, to engage in human affairs. I mean Land of the Free is a very political play. It is so radical that people have been frightened of it. It has not been published or produced. We’ve done many readings of it and people were blown away. People were weeping whilst reading, they were so moved by it. I want to do it in America. It would be worthwhile to do it there now.
EV: Is there a concern with Song of Dina that it might be too focused on a particular type of audience?
DS: It’s not just for Jewish people at all. It depends how we open it out. The great way in is to say, ‘You know Joseph and his multi-coloured coat? Well, he had a sister…’. So, anyone who has heard of Joseph, and a lot of people have, this can be interesting for them, too, and more.
The other great thing about it is that it is a choral piece as well as for soloists. We’ve been approaching all different kinds of choirs. The aim is to be multi-faith, multi-culture, you know, really go beyond borders, and essentially it is the story of a family. It’s the story of a daughter and her father and her brothers. So, anyone who is a father, or has been a daughter, or has brothers, it’s for them. And anyone who is dealing with other people, it’s for them, because it is about the relationship between two tribes.
SJA: How much of the Hebrew would you say influences the writing? I mean, every language can do things that other languages can’t do so well.
DS: I think it has. It has to do with multi-meaning. For a lot of Hebrew words there’s always discussion about what they mean and they can have different meanings. Just essentially the word ‘Shemah’ and the word ‘Hear’, those two words have led us through the whole piece.
EV: I was thinking whether there is an allegorical dimension to it.
DS: I’m sure there is. But you discover those things often afterwards only. That’s the beauty of a piece of work. You just surrender yourself and it’s all coming from some unconscious or beyond conscious place and it keeps revealing. You know, with Kindertransport, many years after I had written it, I realised who Evelyn is based upon, and hadn’t known, I thought it, might have been my mother, but it wasn’t.
SJA: What are other things that contribute to your writing?
DS: One of the things about being a writer from another culture is you kind of have that anthropological eye of the other that is very useful for an artist. So, you’re slightly outside the dominant culture. Because the key of doing fine art is a level of detachment, a level of being able to stand outside, as well as being inside, you need to do both. I think that is one mark of, if you like, writers from a Jewish background in this country. You have that anthropological kind of awareness. You have it of your own culture as well, because you know you are in a culture where your culture is being looked at from the outside and often not really understood, because people often don’t make the effort of trying to understand it. What I found when I went to Germany for a conference, I was amazed at the level of understanding of the Germans about Jewish culture. It was really touching. Because these Germans have made an effort and really were sensitive to it. Where the English are a bit lacks-a-daisical, and a lot of them don’t really know. There is just a lot of ignorance, really. I don’t say that in a condemnatory way, it’s just like they are, you know, not bothered. Not even aware, not eyes open, asleep, and you know, it’s more just, not looking that way.