Cancellation of award for playwright Caryl Churchill condemned

Leading figures in British theatre and film criticise decision not to give Churchill award because of her support for Palestinian rights

Some of the leading names of British theatre and film have criticised the cancellation of a prestigious lifetime award to the playwright Caryl Churchill because of her support for Palestinian rights, saying the move is “nothing less than modern-day McCarthyism”.

Among those signing an open letter published on Thursday are Harriet Walter, Stephen Daldry, Juliet Stevenson, Stephen Frears, Richard Eyre, Peter Kosminsky and Dominic Cooke.

They say they are appalled at the decision to rescind the award. “This attack on freedom of conscience is nothing less than modern-day McCarthyism, and raises urgent questions about a pattern of intimidation and silencing,” the letter says.

It adds: “If the only forms of art deemed ‘safe’ for institutions are those that have nothing to say to the dispossessed and oppressed of this Earth and that are silent in the face of state-sanctioned repression, then art and culture are emptied of meaning and value.”

Churchill, 84, is one of the UK’s most influential and significant contemporary dramatists. She has written more than 30 plays, many dealing with abuse of power.

In April, she was named the recipient of the 2022 European Drama award in recognition of her life’s work. The prize – worth €75,000 (£65,000), the biggest in Europe – is given by Schauspiel Stuttgart and sponsored by the Baden-Württemberg ministry of science, research and arts.

But earlier this month, the jury appointed by the theatre company retracted its decision and cancelled this year’s award, saying it had been “made aware of previously unknown information”.

In a statement, the jury said Churchill had been chosen for the award “in recognition of her life’s work. However, we have meanwhile become aware of the author’s signatures in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS].

“The play Seven Jewish Children can also be regarded as being antisemitic. Therefore, to our great regret, the jury has decided not to confer the prize this year.”

The state government’s arts minister, Petra Olschowski, supported the move. “In Germany, we have a special historical responsibility. That is why we as a country take a clear and non-negotiable stance against any form of antisemitism. This is all the more reason why a prize funded by the state cannot be awarded under the given circumstances,” she said.

In response to the cancellation of the award, Churchill said: “I stand by my support for BDS and Palestinians.”

Seven Jewish Children was written in 2009 in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, a three-week conflict in Gaza during which at least 1,383 Palestinians, including 333 children, were killed, according to Amnesty International. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, also died during the conflict.

Churchill’s 10-minute play was hailed by some critics but heavily criticised by others, including the Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer, who called it antisemitic.

On Thursday, Churchill said the play was about “families wanting to protect children and wondering what to tell them about terrible things, a pogrom, the Holocaust, finally the bombing of Gaza.

“It is critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; it is not an attack on all Jews, many of whom are also critical of Israeli policy. It is wrong to conflate Israel with all Jews. A political play has made political enemies, who attack it with slurs of antisemitism.”

Dominic Cooke, associate director at the National Theatre, who directed Seven Jewish Children at the Royal Court theatre, said the play was written in response to the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead.

“The confected outrage about Caryl’s play was designed to divert attention away from this fact and scare possible critics of it into silence,” he said. “But drawing attention to Israel’s human rights abuses and its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory is not antisemitic, it is legitimate protest.”

The actor Harriet Walter said: “Caryl Churchill deserves the highest international awards for a lifetime of game-changing work in the theatre. To withdraw any honour because of her political views is a dishonourable act reminiscent of McCarthyism.”

The open letter – organised by Artists for Palestine – was also supported by Geoffrey Bindman KC, a leading human rights barrister. He said: “Withdrawal of the European Drama award from Caryl Churchill on the ground of her support for BDS plainly violates her right to freedom of expression protected by article 10 of the European human rights convention. It is wrong and the award should be unconditionally restored to her.”

Earlier this year, Priti Patel, then home secretary, described the BDS movement as racist and antisemitic. “Holding the Jewish community collectively responsible for what happens in the Middle East by my definition is racist,” she told Conservative Friends of Israel.

In 2019, the Bundestag, the German parliament, passed a motion condemning BDS as antisemitic.

A spokesperson for Schauspiel Stuttgart said the jury stood by its decision but was “aware that estimations in Great Britain and Germany differ (and must differ) on this subject”.