A damnable shame

Theatre byDavid Jays

Is the Holocaust untouchable, or up for grabs? What, 50 years on, does it "mean"? After Roberto Benigni shaped genocide into a fable about resilient human nature, a reprise of Jim Allen's play Perdition uses events in occupied Hungary as material for anti-Zionist polemic. It was first due to be staged, in a production by Ken Loach, in 1987. The pre-publicity caused enormous controversy, largely about the factual content of the play (vehemently disputed by Jewish historians such as Martin Gilbert and David Cesarani) and about alleged anti-Semitism. Eventually, the Royal Court decided it couldn't support it and cancelled the production, denying that it was bowing to Zionist pressure. Now the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill is staging what it claims to be a significantly rewritten version.

Perdition caused a rumpus because it unequivocally argued that Zionism worked with Nazism before and during the second world war and connected postwar Israel with European fascism. It suggests that, like the Nazis, the Zionist movement hoped to clear the Jews out of Europe, with the difference that they wanted them to end up in Palestine, rather than the death camps. Taking as its apparent subject the situation of the Hungarian Jews, it followed a familiar line in Allen's writing (Days of Hope, Land and Freedom) about perfidious leaders. "First you placed a noose round the neck of every Jew in Hungary," its central figure was told, "then you tightened the knot and legged it to Palestine." In effect, it argues that certain Jews themselves acted as Hitler's willing executioners.

The play stages a fictional libel trial, but refers to and draws on a notorious real case. In 1953, Rudolf Kastner, an editor living in Israel and closely associated with the Mapai (Labour) government, reluctantly brought a libel case following allegations that he had collaborated when working with the Zionist Rescue Council in occupied Hungary. The accusations originated from the Israeli far right, and the sympathetic judge upheld most, but not all, of the allegations, accusing Kastner of having "sold his soul to the devil". In 1957, Kastner was assassinated, but in 1958 he was posthumously cleared by the Supreme Court of all charges of collaboration.

The case was incendiary because it made Israelis confront some of the founding principles of their nation. Were those who tried to negotiate with the Nazis for Jewish lives heroes or quislings? Had the leaders of European Jewry in a sense assisted the Nazi project? And more broadly, had the founding Zionists' admitted suspicion of the Diaspora Jews shaded into a callous indifference that still underpinned the postwar state? The case continues to have unresolved resonance in Israel, where a society addicted to fractious debate continues to worry over it.

Allen sets his play a decade after Kastner's death, immediately after the six-day war of 1967, which he uses to suggest the continuing nature of Zionist militarism. It was in the aftermath of this war that Israeli writers and historians themselves began reconsidering questions of co-operation with and resistance to the Nazis. The Kastner case inspired Motti Lerner's Kastner (1985), which is framed by courtroom scenes but, unlike Perdition, dramatises the pivotal incidents. Interestingly, according to Glenda Abramson's excellent study Drama and Ideology in Modern Israel (Cambridge, 1998), the play's partial rehabilitation of Kastner placed him not as Allen does, with Zionist triumphalism, but against the military hawks. "If not an analogy," she suggests, "the play is at least a warning to Israel that negotiation may ultimately serve far better than the exercise of force."

Is Perdition, as an otherwise temperate leaflet distributed by the Union of Jewish Students claims, "dancing on the graves of the victims"? Perhaps not, but neither is it properly respectful. Allen's chosen form, polemic, leads him to some highly debatable historical interpretation, but without truly dramatising events to allow us to judge them. Claude Lanzmann's stern dictum is that, when it comes to representing the Holocaust, "fiction is transgression". Certainly fiction is unreliable in Perdition. Crucially, Allen conflates in his figure of Dr Yaron a representative of two quite different Hungarian Jewish organisations: the Jewish Council, or Judenrat, which was charged with maintaining order in the Jewish community, and the Zionist Rescue Council, of which Kastner was a member, and which negotiated with Adolf Eichmann (with partial success). In reality the two bodies were largely antagonistic, but the elision allows Allen to attack virtually all Jewish response to oppression, other than heroic resistance.

During the same year as the Perdition ructions, Joshua Sobol's Ghetto (written in 1984) played at the National Theatre. An argumentative masterpiece set in the Vilna ghetto, it deals with the idea of spiritual resistance, principally through the metaphor of Yiddish theatre and music. It, too, examines the role of the Judenrat and its leader Jacob Gens (derisively name-checked in the published script of Perdition), but with a range of troubled, angry nuance that Allen ignores.

Elliot Levey's sober production of Perdition, which I saw at a preview, goes out of its way to be fair-minded, with inspirational klezmer between scenes and the prosecuting counsel both feminised and Semitised. Set in a brightly lit courtroom, the performance suggested that the witnesses will be played with passion and both lawyers with unhelpful idiosyncrasy (bellows, tears and some bizarre Churchillian inflections). The audience seemed engaged, if sceptical.

Allen's language, however, is audacious, bordering on offensive, bandying charged phrases with almost reckless indifference to their effect. Cut are some of the more vicious phrases from early drafts, such as "the Zionist knife in the Nazi fist" or the barrister's congratulation, "you crucified him". But the trial still centres around a pamphlet titled "I Accuse", after Zola's defence of Dreyfus, and we hear of Jews "carrying out orders". Burdened by the past, Yaron welcomes the non-Jewish barrister's "words hard as nails", as if seeking crucifixion. These are words with a history that needs to be acknowledged. Like the parting "Shalom" with which the same barrister exits, there's a queasy sense that these words, these events, aren't Allen's to treat so casually.

Most tellingly, Allen doesn't scrutinise his own argument. Counsel for the prosecution is ineffectual and her questions personal, rather than political. A character asserts that we mustn't be paralysed by guilt over the Holocaust, though Perdition confidently apportions blame. Although we do not see the verdict, none of the characters doubts that the allegations will be upheld. I'm not so sure. Try though the Gate might, Perdition still feels like an appropriation.

"Perdition" runs until 3 July at the Gate Theatre, Pembridge Road, London W11 (0171-229 0706)

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote