Interview with Nina Raine

Nina Raine Interview, 28 March 2018, The Bedford Hotel, London

NR: Nina Raine

EV: Eckart Voigts

EV: Nina, in our project, we have problems finding the boundaries of the category ‘British-Jewish theatre’. I don’t even know if you would want to be grouped under this heading.

NR: I don’t know, I’m an odd kind of Jew. My mother [Ann Pasternak Slater] is technically Jewish, being of Russian immigrant background. My dad [Craig Raine] is not Jewish, but he’s got a warmth and a combative energy that is quite Jewish. My cousin is my arm of the family that is more – not Orthodox really – but more observant. She married a non-Jew and she is bringing up her children as Jewish. I used to go to her house on Friday nights, because I had a piano lesson in the house next door. So I got introduced, more than any of my brothers probably, to that kind of Jewish world. And then I would go to Yom Kippur and things with them. I could kind of dip in and out a bit, it wasn’t forced on me, and I found I loved it. I’ve always felt at school slightly not English and I couldn’t work out why. I noticed that my packed lunch is different to everyone else’s. No one else ate prawns with, you know, more exotic stuff. And matzah; we were always eating matzah in the house. I remember the people in the class saying, ‘What the hell is that?’, ‘That’s not bread. What are you eating?’

EV: We’ve heard that in other interviews, the idea that you are somehow different and not English.

NR: The whole thing in Tribes[1] is that any community has its own cliques and pressures and sort of blind spots and prejudices.

EV: I love this idea of the family as a tribe. The German translation that I found, Sippschaft, is really good. It’s not just a family, because it means kind of a wider family that would include all, the entire mishpacha. You make this case that the family is like the deaf community?

NR: It’s all different sorts of clusters, or families, or tribes. And Tribes, I suppose that’s the most Jewish of my plays.

EV: I thought so, I mean, certainly Consent[2] is a different territory. And the people in Consent, these lawyers, they could be any kind of ethnicity, right?

NR: Yes, they could be anyone. Funnily enough, when we just did it, one of the lawyers decided – you know how actors decide a character’s history for themselves – well, she decided she was definitely Jewish and that their children were Jewish. And she wasn’t Jewish. John Nathan said something really funny, I remember in his review he said something like, he is sitting there with his notebook, watching Tribes and then he writes, ‘These people argue like Jews.’ And then a few scenes later he goes, ‘Oh, they’re all Jews.’ I even cut some lines [in Tribes]. I was going to have the main character, Christopher, the father, say, ‘We’re the best sort of Jew, the Jew who eats ham.’ They are a kind of clique within a clique, you know.

EV: But that’s not a self-hating or self-distancing aspect?

NR: When I wrote Tribes, part of it is elements from my own family of course, but then you can’t just say, ‘And then what did my dad say?’, ‘What did my brother say?’ They start to take on their own life. And I was imagining my family in north London…

EV: Do you feel Jewish people have a better understanding of your plays?

NR: You know, it’s interesting that the first play I wrote, Rabbit,[3] the person who really bit on that play was Nina Steiger, who at that time was the literary manager at the Soho Theatre. And I felt a real spark with her because, I think, amongst other things she is Jewish. But she is the kind of Jew that you don’t find a lot of in London, because she is American. The Jews in America – it feels like they have a bigger, a stronger, presence in America. So, they’re more confident.

EV: There are roughly 270,000 Jews, I think, in Britain. And most of them in London.

NR: I’ve got lots of friends who are writers and filmmakers and so on, and we joke that they all want to be Jewish. It’s a kind of desirable thing.

EV: Philo-Semitism.

NR: Like Richard Ayoade, he’s a filmmaker. When he was casting Submarine,[4] he said, ‘I’ve got it. The kid’s got to be Jewish. That’s what I’ve been looking for.’ And all these actors are not quite finding what that is. Are we being racist when we say that?

EV: The other thing is about audiences. There are theatres: the Park Theatre, the Hampstead Theatre. You would expect Jewish-themed plays in theatres like that, and occasionally in the National, where part of the audience may be Jewish-inflected. But then, I suppose, you don’t want to be in that kind of pigeonhole where you’re only doing plays for Jewish audiences.

NR: It’s not that exactly, it’s more that I don’t feel qualified, I don’t feel part of that group to do it with any confidence. Because I can’t read Hebrew, I haven’t had a bat mitzvah. I suppose, I’m not part of either world, I’m a kind of hybrid.

EV: Could you think of yourself writing a more decidedly Jewish-themed play in the future?

NR: I feel like I would have to get involved with the Jewish community more to feel equipped, because I just feel that my past is Jewish. And my mother gave all of us Jewish names because she felt that it was important to set down that we are not ashamed of being Jewish.

EV: Did you practice any kind of Judaism?

NR: Not at home, but like I said I did. I really hungered for it in my teens, so that’s why I kind of got involved with my cousin’s family. I really wanted to be part of something. I love the synagogue because it feels foreign, it doesn’t feel English. It feels like this amazing exotic thing. And I loved the men, I thought that the young Jewish men are the most handsome in the world.

EV: Have you been to Israel recently?

NR: No, I haven’t. But they did Tribes there, and they sent me the programme and I thought, ‘that is the best-looking cast I have ever seen’. Maybe I just think that because I’m Jewish. But I don’t completely feel a part of it. Maybe I would, if I’d actually learned Hebrew. […] We’re making huge generalizations here, by the way.

EV: I know, we have that problem with our project all the time.

NR: Because that’s the only way to sort of have a conversation.

EV: The boundaries, where do you put them? When do you say somebody is a British-Jewish playwright? You have to generalize.

NR: I know. So, let’s just not be self-conscious about it.

EV: I was looking for a play that would actually address these communities that are more observant. Do they exist in London?

NR: Well, in Tribes they talk about more observant houses in the way that the husband [Christopher] is actually completely dominated by his wife [Beth]. I thought it was very funny that there is a kind of a Jewish man who is sort of the mother hen man running around. The man with a dominant wife. And I know a few of those in the peripheries of my family. So, they do talk about more observant Jews and how they find it ridiculous, the whole kind of superstitiousness they see it as, you know, kosherness

EV: Ryan Craig’s play, Filthy Business,[5] is a family play. He has a wonderful matriarch [Yetta Solomon] played by Sarah Kestelman. She fills exactly that kind of character type. I mean, that’s really something that you would expect, that kind of character in a play, without even having the trappings of being definably Jewish.

NR: Yes, it’s funny isn’t it? Because also, I thought that the family was so Jewish in Tribes but lots of people came and saw the play and compared it to a Noël Coward play, is it Hay Fever? With the family who were, you know …

EV: Garrulous?

NR: Garrulous, intellectual, sharp, witty. I mean Noël Coward is so far from being Jewish, isn’t he?

EV: But your plays are basically about conversation, aren’t they? Intelligent talk, conversation, that’s how I read it.

NR: Yes, and argument. People on different sides and they are uncensored and they don’t hold back.

EV: And all the sides have a case in a way …

NR: Interestingly, when Tribes started in Stockholm, I directed it. And there is a genuine antisemitism in Sweden. Therefore, bits in the play where they’re rude about Jewish people, even though they are themselves Jewish, it’s very icky. And in the same way, in Hungary when we did Tribes, they regard deaf people as basically subnormal. So, when the deaf girl says this thing that should be a huge bombshell in the play, you know, ‘sometimes I think deaf people are different’, you feel the Hungarian audiences just going, ‘they are’. It’s kind of ‘what’s the big deal here?’. And I felt terrible because I was staying at this Airbnb apartment and I really loved the woman who was letting it to me. And I said, ‘I’ll sort you out tickets’, and then I never heard anything else from her. I thought maybe she was offended because she was Jewish. She didn’t see what they were doing. I was not saying Jews are awful, I was saying that even within a clique you get cliques that can laugh at that clique and that makes them a smaller clique, a splinter’s splinter.

EV: So, it’s easier in New York to laugh about that kind of joke than in Hungary?

NR: Absolutely. But not in Stockholm.

EV: I wasn’t aware that there’s a particular antisemitism in Stockholm.

NR: There’s just been a synagogue that has been desecrated and things.

EV: You get that all over. You certainly get that in Germany as well. Desecrated Jewish cemeteries. Occasionally you get that.

NR: Yeah. EV: Increasingly actually, maybe. Unfortunately.

[1] Raine, N. (2013 [2010]), Tribes. New York: Nick Hern Books.

[2] Raine, N. (2017), Consent. London: Nick Hern Books.

[3] Raine, N. (2006), Rabbit, London: Nick Hern Books.

[4] Submarine (2011), [Film] Dir. Richard Ayoade, USA: The Weinstein Company.

[5] Craig, R. (2017), Filthy Business. London: Oberon Books.