Of course Dame Helen can play a Jew, darling. It's called acting!

Of course Dame Helen can play a Jew, darling. It’s called acting! Maureen Lipman once played an Anglican vicar – but she complains that Helen Mirren is the wrong religion to be cast as Golda Meir, writes JONATHAN MYERSON

  • Dame Maureen Lipman ‘not comfortable’ at Golda Meir being played by a gentile
  • Israel’s first female Prime Minister is portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren in ‘Golda’
  • Dame Maureen once wore a dog-collar herself to play a Church of England vicar
  • ‘If all Jewish characters must be played by Jewish actors, where does it end?’

The phone first rang just after breakfast. And that initial call was followed over the next few hours by a volley of texts.

All were from Jewish theatre colleagues and all were on the same topic: Maureen Lipman’s decision to go off the deep end about Helen Mirren, aggrieved that the non-Jewish actress had been chosen to play the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

According to Lipman, ‘the Jewishness of the character is so integral’ that it is unthinkable for a gentile to so much as attempt it, even an actress of Dame Helen Mirren’s versatility and experience.

‘But she’s played Jews before!’ a director friend told me. ‘One Mossad agent, one victim of Nazi looting. No one complained.’

An actor, who had recently played both Nazis and Holocaust survivors for me, texted: ‘She’s not “Jewing-up”, she’s “Goldaing-up”. Get real!’

Dame Helen Mirren portrays Israel’s first female prime minister Golda Meir in the film, Golda, telling the story behind Meir’s dramatic time in office during the Yom Kippur War in 1973

The cause of all the fuss is a new film called Golda, set during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Israel came as close to total annihilation as it ever has.

Dame Maureen told the Jewish Chronicle that she was ‘not comfortable’ about the title role being given to a non-Jewish person.

She added: ‘I’m sure she will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.’

Actress Dame Maureen Lipman, pictured playing a vicar in 2015, told the Jewish Chronicle she was ‘not comfortable’ at the title role being given to a non-Jewish person

Clearly, no one is suggesting that there should be a return to ‘blackface’ roles, but barring Dame Helen from playing such a part is nonsensical. To paraphrase Laurence Olivier’s famous quip to Dustin Hoffman: ‘Maureen darling, it’s called acting!’

Yes, looking at the advance photos from the production, Dame Helen does require the help of facial prosthetics to appear authentic in the role. But this isn’t to make her look Jewish, it’s to make her look like Golda Meir.

I rather despair of Lipman’s criticisms because I dread a world in which actors and characters are separated into silos.

If all Jewish characters must be played by Jewish actors, where does it end?

Must gay roles become the exclusive preserve of gay actors? Should Jews be banned from portraying Christians and vice versa?

If so, that would certainly have precluded Dame Maureen from donning a dog-collar to play a Church of England vicar vying to become an archbishop, no less, in The Vicar Of Dibley, as she did in a Red Nose special in 2015.

Do we really want a world where we live in these compartments and never stray? As my breakfast texters reminded me, this isn’t Dame Maureen’s first foray into this dispute.

All too recently, she complained of ‘cancel culture’ making life impossible for comedians, for fear of giving offence. They were quick to point out that this plea for outspokenness hardly tallies with her reaction to Mirren’s casting.

Nor is it the first time that Maureen has railed against what she might consider to be ‘gentile mission-creep’.

Back in 2019 she attacked the West End musical Falsettos, which featured a Jewish family, for insufficient Jewish involvement both on stage and off.

But even then I thought that she was missing what I consider the best thing about being Jewish in Britain — our invisibility.

Dame Helen Mirren described Golda Meir as ‘a formidable, intransigent and powerful leader’

I am Jewish on my father’s side, and thanks to his genes I walk around with a classic Jewish nose and Ashkenazi eye-bags which seem to become more grey and more ponderous every year.

Then there’s my surname of Myerson — which is not only the name of the first Jewish Miss America but also Golda Meir’s original married name (sadly, no relation to me either).

As a result, there are plenty of European countries in which many people’s Jew-dar would instantly flash red at the mere sight of me.

In the UK, there is rarely so much as a flicker. The fact is that it does not cross most British people’s minds even to ask the question.

Some UK rabbis might bemoan the extent of this integration but surely that is the better way — the only way — forward?

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the high-profile director of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire, soon came out against Dame Maureen’s intervention. ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew, or orphaned to be an orphan,’ he tweeted yesterday.

While Stephen Pollard, editor at large of the Jewish Chronicle, the very paper that broke the story, said: ‘I adore Maureen Lipman but she couldn’t be more wrong on this. The logic of her position is that the only character any actor can play is themselves.’

This isn’t the first time the issue of so-called ‘Jewface’ has raised its head, of course. The role of the American comedienne Joan Rivers in a forthcoming biopic has been given to a non-Jewish actress called Kathryn Hahn.

Ms Rivers made no secret of her Jewishness but you would be hard-put to say she looked especially Semitic.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (1898 – 1978) at the Socialist International Congress in Eastbourne, Sussex, in 1969

But that didn’t stop Sarah Silverman, the U.S. comedian, criticising the casting. ‘One could argue that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface’.

Of course, the very word ‘Jewface’ is designed to make us think of ‘Blackface’ — a genre which involved white minstrel performers painting their faces to do comedy routines about black people — and all the horrible implications of that. But there really is no comparison.

First, Blackface is gruesomely freighted not only with the long history of white colonialism, but also the casual appropriation of black culture.

When I see Dame Helen’s remarkable prosthetic transformation, I do not think: ‘Oh, there’s another goy dressing up as a Jew.’

Nor do I have any cause to remember how much Jewish cultural life has been subsumed by White European culture — largely because it hasn’t. If anything, it’s the other way round. Jewish humour has become effectively the dominant form of U.S. humour, and therefore worldwide humour.

And thanks to the first Hollywood and Broadway moguls, Jewish storytelling — everything from schmaltzy sentimentality to plangent music — became central to 20th-century film and theatre.

But do actors, whether Jewish-looking or not, want to be compartmentalised as Jewish? You can’t criticise any actor — most of whom are not Dames or Sirs and spend their time scrabbling for the next job — for avoiding that.

Nor is Helen Mirren in the same position as Eddie Redmayne, who expressed his regret that he played a trans character in the 2015 romantic drama The Danish Girl and now feels that he should have left the field open to a trans actor.

His mea culpa followed a similar one last year from the director of My Left Foot in which Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of a character with cerebral palsy.

Jim Sheridan, a six-time Academy Award nominee, said that he does ‘not think it’s right any more’ for ‘able-bodied’ actors to play disabled characters. But the disabled and the trans communities are horribly under-represented in casting throughout stage and screen. Sorry, Maureen, Jewish actors cannot say the same.

Of course, if you’ve made it your thing to play Jewish — and as such Dame Maureen is a National Treasure — then to see a fellow Dame mopping up the juicy role of Golda Meir must be frustrating

But please, Dame Maureen, let’s not accidentally go down the same road as Karl Lueger, the infamously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna between 1897 and 1910, who declared, ‘I decide who is a Jew’.

  • Jonathan Myerson is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director. All episodes of his latest project, a podcast called Nuremberg, are available on BBC Sounds.

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