Simon Block: Whose life is it anyway?

Simon Block has satirised TV-land and cab-drivers in the past, but his new play taps into his own heritage: it's about modern Jewish identity, he tells Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture

Because a brief patch of illness kept my youngest daughter off school for the day, I had to postpone my first scheduled meeting with Simon Block, whose eloquent new play Hand in Hand opens tonight at Hampstead Theatre, north-west London. So, when we regroup for lunch the following day, the talk kicks off on the subject of children (the 35-year-old Block has two boys) and how the number of offspring in any family is at the discretion (or indiscretion) of wives. Abstinence from sex is, we agree, one option for keeping the domestic population at a manageable level. Then again, it's scarcely foolproof. Look at the Virgin Mary. But perhaps, I suggest, a Jewish home has less to fear these days from the Holy Spirit popping in and leaving that kind of calling-card.

"Maybe it will visit our house when I'm not there," laughs Block, who reveals that his schoolteacher wife is a Gentile with a vaguely Christian background. ("Her mother sort of wandered all over the place, working, and so my wife has always been more or less non-denominational.") Since Jewishness is matrilineal, are his sons non-Jews? "Strictly speaking, yes. [Pause.] Tell that to my parents," he replies, though he hastens to add that his mother and father have been very good about his marrying "out". All of this has some bearing on the new play, which started life as an attempt to get into the mind of Cass, younger sister of the Jewish protagonist, Ronnie, a 36-year-old permanent student who has just come back to London, with a suitcase full of explosive new ideological baggage, from his abandoned PhD research in Israel.

Cass has, in the meantime, embarked on a relationship with Ronnie's long-standing best pal, Dan, a Gentile. (That aspect of the piece reminds you that Block leapt to attention in 1995 with Not a Game for Boys, an accomplished debut play about the liabilities of male bonding in a cockney cab-drivers' ping-pong team.) "Hand in Hand really started with the single story of somebody [Cass] who, to all intents and purposes, should be happy with the person that she's with, but can't make the final commitment until she gets what she thinks is a guarantee of happiness. So she sets about trying to achieve it."

Guarantees of happiness are a doomed project in anyone's life, but particularly for someone faced with a brother in Ronnie's destructively idealistic mood. The play's priorities seem to have shifted as Block came to understand that the crucial pressure on the sister's relationship should come from the sibling who, to the distress of his parents, has become a born-again zealot for the Palestinian cause – a man who may well have begun to mount the right arguments but from wrong, dubiously self-evading motives.

"That's when the whole Jewish-identity element came in," discloses the author. "I gradually understood that I was trying to find a contemporary context for Jews of that [thirtysomething] generation that didn't depend on traditional preoccupations such as the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. I feel that there is a much more contemporary link to Israel for people of my age group. Obviously, there's a historical link to the Holocaust, so it is live in that sense, but it's not as live as our relationship with Israel."

The characters in Block's work are articulate to a fault. Though critics have with some justice compared him to David Mamet for his depictions of "pressure-cooker living", on the level of dialogue he sometimes reminds me more of Simon Gray. So wittily devastating are his progeny's powers of self-expression that I half-expected to meet a morose, tongue-tied type for whom the writing of dialogue was a form of esprit de l'escalier.

Though Block claims that I am right to have that suspicion, he is an interviewer's dream. Delightful company, he talks in clear, thoughtful, humorous sentences. I would say that playwrights divide into those who listen to other people and those who listen only to themselves. Good art can be made from either mentality. But Block is definitely in the former camp. Attending to the tape of the interview later, I note with amusement several occasions when he was unobtrusively and briefly interviewing me. Maybe his curiosity stems from his MPhil in criminology at Cambridge, part of a career that has varied widely – from elephant-dung-shoveller at London Zoo to taking bets for William Hill.

Inevitably, we touch on the "kosher conspiracy" scandal that erupted recently at the New Statesman after its cover that badly mishandled the iconography of anti-Semitism, leaving out the ironic quotation marks that would have hinted that the magazine did not endorse such repulsive prejudices. "What I find frustrating", says Block, "is that whenever somebody says something against the Israeli government, it's immediately concluded to be 'anti-Israel' or 'anti-Zionist' or 'anti-Semitic' – as though you can't just take issue with certain policies as you would with anywhere else. It's not helpful for an open discussion. Or, for example, I would be termed 'a self-hating Jew' simply because I have some concerns about what has been going on there."

No one, though, could level at Hand in Hand the charge that the sister and her boyfriend level at Ronnie in the play: that he is appropriating someone else's struggle as a way of avoiding facing up to himself. You can tell that Block feels the injustice that has been meted out to the Palestinians. But his play is careful not to arrogate to itself any moral credit for this implicit admission. Rather, it scrupulously examines the understandable – sometimes self-deceiving, sometimes principled – positions that thirtysomething English Jews find themselves taking because of the fact of Israel. It understands how the "appropriation" charge – and the contention that one has to put one's own house in order before interfering with somebody else's – is rather convenient to the sister. It would minister to a quiet life.

But the piece also recognises the fairness of her claim that Ronnie romantically and self-interestedly envisions the Palestine cause as some glorious monolith. "Which perspective would you like?" counters Cass. "The Palestinian people's? The Palestinian Authority's? The Palestinian National Council's? The Palestinian intellectuals'? The Islamic jihad's? The Muslim Brotherhood's? Or shall we try someone else's truth now?"

Block also writes for television (he has done episodes of Attachments and North Square). The twisted, dumbed-down culture of TV was the focus of his last satiric theatre piece, A Place at the Table, which dramatised the misadventures of people trying to develop a mainstream sitcom based on disability. A poisonous TV producer expedites plot-movement in Hand in Hand, too, with a show that sets out to entrap erring males with the consent of their suspicious partners, who are then presented with a set of grisly options. But doesn't Block risk TV suicide with such frank depictions?

"Not at all," he laughs. "The Bush was packed out with TV people when we did A Place at the Table." Caliban staring at his face in the mirror? "Yes, and seeing somebody else in it." More likely is that the audiences at Hampstead Theatre (where many of the punters are Jewish) will recognise themselves in Block's new play. Among many other things, it demonstrates that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism do not necessarily go hand in hand.

'Hand in Hand' opens tonight at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020-7722 9301) and runs to 16 March