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09 May 2017

Interview with Samantha Ellis

Inspired by the extraordinary tale of Dom. Marco Raphael, who was allegedly the only Jew at the time of Henry VIII in England, Samantha Ellis has written a brand new play, The Only Jew in England. With scintillating wit and piercing compassion, the production brings to life a world of music, glamour, flirtation and gripping political tension.

Samantha’s playwright credits include Cling To Me Like Ivy, (Birmingham Rep and on tour, published by Nick Hern Books), Sugar and Snow (Hampstead Theatre / BBC Radio 4), Operation Magic Carpet (Polka Theatre), Starlore for Beginners and Other Plays (Theatre 503) and How to Date a Feminist (Arcola Theatre and on tour, published by Nick Hern Books. She also script-edits for Heyday Films, and she is the author of non-fiction books How to Be a Heroine and Take Courage: Anne Bronté and the Art of Life both published by Chatto & Windus.

Samantha Ellis is thrilled to be writing for the actors at East 15 Acting School and recently revealed more about what audiences can expect from her captivating new play, The Only Jew in England.

Can you tell us a bit more about the show, what can audiences expect?

“It’s based on a true story. In 1531, Henry VIII had the bright idea of consulting a Jewish scholar when trying to get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, to see if he could find legal arguments to convince the Pope. The trouble was that there were no Jews in England. They’d all been expelled in 1290. So Dom Marco Raphael was brought over from Venice, a rabbi who had supposedly converted to Christianity, although he probably hadn’t. He was also a bit of a chancer, whose sidelines included spying, import export and his own recipe for invisible ink. I had been wanting to write about the rise in anti-Semitism today and the fear of difference. When I heard about Dom Marco I thought I could do that by writing about Tudor England where people had all kinds of wild ideas about Jews, despite the fact that Dom Marco was officially the only Jew to set foot in the country. When I discovered that Henry VIII’s court was full of secret Jews – including (possibly) the musicians who formed his reluctant backing band – I got excited about looking at how Jews and other minorities respond to hatred, whether they try to defiantly live loud and proud, or whether they live in disguises of various kinds. So this is a story about racism, a love story, and also a romp and a bodice-ripper. It’s set in a Tudor world that is full of difference and also full of fear of difference, all set against the backdrop of Henry VIII making his very own Brexit.”

How did you first hear about the history of Dom Marco Raphael? How did you go about researching his character?

“A friend told me the story and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I immersed myself in Tudor history and read everything I could about Raphael himself, although the historical record is very slight, so there were a lot of gaps to fill in (which is, I admit, a gift for a dramatist).”

What are the key themes this production explores?

“This is a play about wanting to say out loud who you are, to express your identity boldly. It’s also a play about anti-semitism, racism and difference.”

What’s going to surprise people about this show?

“This isn’t the Tudor England we know from most period dramas; instead of the whitewashed view we so often see on stage and screen. I wanted to write about Tudor England as I think it might have been, a place where there were a lot of different kinds of people, different accents, different cultures, different faiths, and where the idea of Englishness was being forged partly by deciding that some people were just “other”, by creating a politics of us and them which is still with us today.”

As an author, what brought you to theatre?

“In my first week at university, a couple of other students asked me if I wrote. I did, but only very bad poetry. They said they were writing a play and needed someone to write the women. I couldn’t say no. By the time we’d done that play (a short set at a railway waiting room) and ended up producing it and playing a bit part as a frightened nun, I had decided theatre was what I wanted to write. I loved the fact that it brought a lot of people together to make something, and that it made the audience join the makers in imagining. I still do.”

How did you get involved with East 15? 

“Matthew Lloyd directed my last play, How to Date A Feminist, and when he asked me to write this one, I was so enjoying working with him that I couldn’t say no. I’ve also always really admired East 15 as a drama school and have been inspired by its history; Joan Littlewood is my heroine.”

The Only Jew in England runs at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch from 18 – 20 May. Tickets are on a ‘pay what you think it’s worth‘ basis. For more information about the play and ticketing click here.

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