Al Smith may not be the first British playwright to ask “What’s in a name?”, but this weekend he had cause to ponder Shakespeare’s famous line.
Smith, the author of a new play coming to the Royal Court theatre this week, had given a lead character the name of Hershel Fink. But publicity for the production prompted angry complaints about Jewish stereotyping. In response, the famous venue on Sloane Square in London has now apologised and agreed to change the name, admitting that it was “unconscious bias” that had led to the Silicon Valley billionaire in the work being given this identity.
In an official statement, the theatre management added that the character in Smith’s play, Rare Earth Mettle, which stars former Doctor Who actor Arthur Darvill, is not Jewish and that there is no reference to his faith or Jewishness in the show.
Among those to question the planned use of the name Hershel Fink were Adam Lenson, the director and producer, and David Baddiel, the writer and comedian.
“The Royal Court claims they didn’t realise ‘Hershel Fink’ was a Jewish name. Hmmm. Somehow it just sounded so right for a world-conquering billionaire,” Baddiel posted on Twitter. This February, Baddiel’s new book, Jews Don’t Count, argued that antisemitic bias is the one prejudice that remains largely unpoliced in the “culture wars”.
Lenson was also critical on Twitter about the Royal Court taking “a character so clearly based on Elon Musk” and giving him “an obviously Jewish name”. He added: “Casually making a Silicon Valley billionaire Jewish perpetuates antisemitic stereotypes and will cause ideological harm.”
The writer Laura McGrady questioned the venue’s claim to be unaware of the connotations of the name. “If I’m believing that no one noticed the problem here … which, I’m not. I’m not believing that at all. Then am I supposed to believe that writers give characters names from specific cultures or origins without even noticing? Seems a reach to me.”
Set on a salt flat in South America, Rare Earth Mettle is a campaigning piece about the damage inflicted by powerful tech industries. The original Fink character was the chief executive of an electric car company and has been compared to Elon Musk in interviews with Smith.
The Royal Court said: “We are grateful to the members of the Jewish community who got in touch with the Royal Court to communicate the name of one of the characters in Rare Earth Mettle is antisemitic.
“For clarification, the character is not Jewish and there is no reference to being Jewish in the play. We acknowledge that this is an example of unconscious bias and we will reflect deeply on how this has happened in the coming days. We and the writer are deeply sorry for harm caused. In response to our learning the writer has changed the name, as of last night.”
Smith, who has written for Holby City and EastEnders, as well as for radio, penned the recent acclaimed ambulance service-based series of dramas, Life Lines, for BBC Radio 4. He said that he had deliberately aimed at a wide array of targets while writing Rare Earth Mettle, covering racism as well as many of the challenges facing both the global economy and ecology.
Baddiel ironically paraphrased Smith’s ambition on Twitter: “I’ve written a play. Everything – particularly now and particularly about ethnicity – gets relentlessly discussed. Except as regards one ethnicity apparently.” And he commented: “It’s still a very instructive Jews Don’t Count episode.”
But Baddiel later recognised that the theatre and playwright had subsequently done the correct thing in responding to public dismay and changing the name.