Theos

Home / Comment / Podcasts

Kate Maltby on her Jewish heritage, identity issues and the power of live theatre

Kate Maltby on her Jewish heritage, identity issues and the power of live theatre

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to columnist and senior research associate Kate Maltby. 01/06/2022

Kate Maltby is a columnist for The i Paper, theatre critic and senior research associate at Jesus College Cambridge.

She spoke about her Jewish heritage, the power and (almost) sacredness of live theatre and of dealing with identity issues.

Read the full transcript here:

Elizabeth 

Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest values, the stories that shape us. And how we can build empathy and understanding across our very many deep differences. Every episode I speak to someone who has some kind of public voice or public platform, and I ask them to reflect on what is sacred to them, what ideas have shaped the way they now try and be in the world, and how they think about the way they use their voice and their platform today. The hope is that by listening to a wide range of different people, at a level beyond just listening to them argue about their position or promoting their project the usual ways we talk to each other in public, that I will be and maybe you will be too continually reminded that there are real, complex human beings involved in even the most painful and contentious debates. If you stay with us, you’ll hear quite quickly, someone who has different life experience to you different politics, different metaphysical beliefs, who might really disagree with you on something deep, who might really get your backup someone who you might not naturally choose to listen to. Because the age of the algorithm means it’s easier and easier to mainly consume content made by and for people like us. It means that when we do encounter people different from us, usually in quite a shallow or quite a distanced way, in shorthand in a, in some kind of debate setting, it’s really easy to write them off as idiots to type them to see them as actively malign and some people are probably actively malign but I think fewer than we let ourselves believe. The hypothesis behind The Sacred podcast is that growing division and tribalism is bad for us all. It’s not nice to live with, I don’t want to feel so annoyed and judgey all the time. And it also makes tackling the complex problems our world faces even more difficult. For me, personally is motivated by a theological commitment to listen and even love across divides. But if you have no religious beliefs at all, or different ones, you are so welcome here. And I hope in fact, I know because people tell me that you should find it just as life giving and interesting and hopefully even a little bit inspiring, just as much. In this episode, you will hear a conversation that I had with Kate Maltby, Dr. Kate Maltby, I guess given her academic position, she is a theatre critic, a columnist for The i Paper and for The Stage. The chair of the Critics Circle Theatre Division, I think it’s called. Deputy chair of index on censorship and a senior research associate at Jesus College, Cambridge, with a particular interest in the intellectual life of Elizabeth I. Interestingly, Kate actually is a Christian. And I got the impression that she doesn’t often speak about it in public. And he was really keen to which was a real privilege. We also spoke about her Jewish heritage, the power of theatre, and the sense that something almost sacred happens in life theatre, and how we navigate identity issues, which is something that she has sometimes been personally embroiled in. I really enjoy speaking to her. And I hope you enjoy listening. So Kate, we are going to go immediately deep, which can feel like a bit of a change of gear when you’ve been finishing an email and eating lunch. But the hope is by asking what is sacred to you to just give a tiny space for a little bit of different kind of self–reflection. And it can be something religious, but it’s often not, it’s often a principle or a value that you are at least trying to make central in your life. And one of the shorthand’s that I sometimes use that is helpful is, if someone gave you a lot of, offered you a lot of money to give this thing up, or stop doing this thing or stop going to this place, you’d feel that like urgh, you know that ick factor, the sense of being somehow compromised even in the offer. But no one really knows we start with the first guess and things unfold.

Kate 

Okay, so what is sacred to me? Well, sort of two simple answers both occurred to me. The first is stillness. It is, obviously the Christian Bible talks a lot about finding, finding the voice of God in stillness, so do many other faith traditions. And like lots of people who come on this show, probably I spend a lot of my time running around like crazy, living a very, very, you know, running flying around like a fruit fly. And I don’t often have enough stillness in my life. I don’t think it’s coincidence that one of you know, one of my favourite hymns has got to be ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’. And you know, that just repetition of the still small voice of calm as something that really does express moments of the sacred in life. But the other thing, which is also cliche, but also, you know, you said, What, could you never give up? Is books and text. In fact, I remember the great scholar Lisa Jardine, who I was one of many people she mentored I mean, there were, she was, she had, you know, much more significant and greater protégés than me, but she was someone who came into my life for a while before she died. She was an expert on annotation in a very technical way. She was an expert on the way that renaissance thinkers used to scribble on their books. I remember once asking her if this meant she scribbled on her own books, and she sort of looked at me and went “I was raised, that books were sacred”. And so she studied her whole life, other people’s scribbles, but should never do it herself. 

Elizabeth 

I love marginalia! To not let yourself even with pencil, do marginalia. 

Kate 

But I think, you know, I was raised in the same way, you never scribble on a book. And that was partly because if you grew up in a household that values language and values, words, you understand. Not that the book can’t be interpreted in 100 different ways and messed around and lots of ways. But what’s sacred about words and texts is that they are multi layered. And they encode in each physical volume, all of the possibilities of infinite readers readings of them. And the moment you annotate them, you delineate them, you make you up, you’re selfish in your use of the book, because you impose and impress upon them, your own your own interpretation, and your own distractions. I mean, I know when I take out books from the library, and they’ve got someone else’s scholarly notes on it, but I see something that’s been instrumentalised a book that’s been used for another very specific purpose, that isn’t my purpose, and that distracts and limits me. So, to go back to the sacred, I mean, books are sacred, because, not because they should be treated in with respect in that very kind of Victorian way. But because they, they’re, you know, they should be left to be open to everything, but also because they are traditions and traditions, you know, I’m still I think enough of a Tory to recognise that inherited wisdom has its value. And that is why, you know, as someone who loves literature and love what I do is about literature, I’m interested in what is passed on through language and through books, and all of those multiple encoded meanings that they carry. And as someone who is, broadly speaking, a person of faith. I’m interested in the sacredness at the moment where the religious tradition and the literary tradition meet. 

Elizabeth  

So beautiful, and I want to unpack that thread about politics, even as I wrestle with my own as I as I was reading about you and thinking about me, I was like, oh, this is such an interesting mix of influences and I can’t put her in the box. No one No one fits in any boxes.  

Kate 

Boxes are terrible things! 

Elizabeth 

I know, this is what this project is about. They’re such terrible things and, yeah. What do you anyway, we’ll come back to that I want to start hopefully in a less boxed season of your life, which is your childhood. And I’d love to just hear about the formative ideas that were around paint us a little word picture about little Kate, where was she? Who was she in relationship with? And what were the big ideas in the air? 

Kate  

Go back to books, bookish. You know, the first one of the very, very first things I took to was reading. And I don’t mean to compliment that myself on that, because I will say to everybody involved, I was behind on everything else. Catching a ball took, you know, extra tuition. Spatial awareness, I still can’t write handwriting that’s legible. All those things you learned to do as a child, but I learned to read very, very quickly and obsessively and loved it. And I did come from a very bookish household, sometimes almost pressured to be bookish. And yeah, I sort of, I’m always a bit wary about talking about my family too much, because they are their own people, and they have lives that deserve some privacy, but it’s fair to say I was you know, I was very fortunate in a lot of the, the opportunities that were open to me, and the privileges that I had, it was also quite a pressured and intellectual environment. And I think as soon as I showed any capacity for anything, academic, there was a sort of even greater expectation on that. It was a, it was a mixed in terms of faith and ethnicity and class. You know, my father is not a man of any faith, although he comes from the type of very ordinary English, you know, white family that has traditionally, you know, made up congregations of the Church of England, whereas my mother raised me without any Jewish tradition, but was herself the child of two Jewish refugees from the shoah. And she actually raised me as an Anglican, which I have remained. And so she believed in my father didn’t and that was fine. And that still works. But it was very much, I suppose, in terms of my own faith journey. There were a lot of options around as it were. And I understood that, you know, one had family who were Jewish, and one had family who were Anglican and one had family who had no faith at all, and that those things didn’t necessarily correlate to ethnicity, either, and to culture. 

Elizabeth 

Interesting. I’ve talked to people from so many different religious and non–religious backgrounds, but that doesn’t seem to correlate necessarily with an experience of the Divine. Do you have early memories of the G word is such a bomb to drop, isn’t it, but have a feeling of the transcendent of something beyond you have an encounter with a sense of God? How did that show up in your childhood – if it did? 

Kate 

I don’t if you quite said the church didn’t always correlate to the transcendent or upbringing. For many people. I think that’s true. But for me, actually, you know, the good old Anglican liturgy and in particular, music, has always, has always been transcendent for me, I mean, when it’s done well. And sacred music, I think from about as early as I can remember is, I mean, that is still a way that I feel the presence of God. And I was very lucky, I went to University of New College Oxford, which is particularly famous for its choir. It’s a very traditional male voice choir, and you know, wins Grammys and things like that, and I would go regularly. And, you know, university was quite a stressful time for me, but that was my stillness. And it was about the chapel in this very sort of ancient medieval building and, but also about the sacred music, and I’m very, very traditionalist about that. 

Elizabeth   

How did your mum talk about her Judaism? How does it feel as kind of part of your story now? 

Kate   

Well, I think how my mum talks about things as a question for her. And there is a, you know, there is a thing when you become a journalist or a writer, I think my parents are very proud of me, in that sense, but they also, you know, it’s not a career that’s supposed to be all about, kind of, exposing my family to my own, splashing myself across the media. So, I think I would say that, as I’ve said elsewhere, she and her whole family had been on a journey about kind of being more relaxed about talking about their Jewish heritage over the years, because my grandparents were just very, very, like many people who’d been through that kind of trauma. You know, they were both raised in Jewish households, although very secular ones. But, you know, they knew they were Jewish back in Hungary back before the war. And that difference was what led to huge numbers of their family being murdered. And so when they came to this country, they both decided that they were going to reinvent themselves. And actually, they officially converted, though I don’t think in a very meaningful way. And it was, you started going to the local Anglican parish church in the same way that you changed your name from Engle to Elton, it’s part of fitting in. And I think for the next generation there’s been a process as there has been many people have that kind of background or coming to terms with that. But in their childhood, they weren’t, you know, it was a dirty secret. And therefore, that obviously affects people. But I mean, my uncle has reconverted fully in is on the board of his synagogue, I think. So, it’s not like no one in the family is it’s something we’re aware of my, I increasingly, usually now the I go to Passover Seder with my cousins, which I love. And they’ve helped me reconnect, which I’m very grateful to them. But it’s fair to say that different members of my family kind of have come back to it in different ways. And if you were raised as my mother was, with parents for whom it was a secret trauma effectively, and a reason people might kill you. I mean, there was a story I think I can tell which is sort of well known in the family, which is my, my aunt was christened, like all of them were in the local parish church. And I think the baptism certificate got left behind at the church or something. So the priests promised to post it and it didn’t come the first day, he did promise it will come in the post, and my grandmother apparently had a complete meltdown. And my, my mother was only five didn’t really understand why but she remembers the kind of physical panic attack of this baptism certificate not having come in the post when it was promised and her grandmother saying that we need the certificate, we need the certificate to save her life. Because one day there is this memory that they’re going to come back after you and you need pieces of paper to show that you went to a church to show that you’re not a Jew, and you’re therefore not going to be killed. Don’t think those traumas really go away in families? You asked about my mother. And one thing that I think she’d be happy to say is that, you know, her greatest influence on me and all this is as a Christian. And as a person of, particularly, she, I mean she’s fantastic. But as a person, particularly committed to philanthropy, in the broad sense in the sense of Christian charity, and the importance of constant Christian self–sacrifice. And I deeply admire her in that, and that is, you know, probably the most important thing she has transmitted to me is her Christian values rather than her Jewish heritage in some ways. 

Elizabeth 

A really big thread in your life has been literature, obviously, more broadly, but theatre in particular. What are your earliest memories of theatre? What drew you there? 

Kate 

Oh, gosh, well, my mum again. But I mean, theatre’s just amazing. I didn’t really know how to explain it. But I certainly, you know, I was lucky in that my mother was interested and, you know, not obsessive like I am. But, you know, we lived in London, and that is a privilege as well. And one of the very first things I was taken to was a play put on by a theatre company called Tara arts, who are still around and who do. Who are I think it’s probably best to describe them as a company telling ethnic minority stories, but particularly with a relationship with South Asia. A piece of Indian storytelling for the schoolchildren at the National Theatre, I think I just remember the colours. You know, sorry, that’s a very childish thing to think that I just remember the colours. But I remember being excited that this was another way of having stories that you could play with other people at the same time. You know, it didn’t have to be on your own, you were still telling a story. But there are all these people on stage and there. But what I love about theatre now, I’ve realised is a sense of the sacred. And I was thinking about this a lot in lockdown. There’s a critic called David Jay, he’s a very talented critic, who wrote a piece about missing theatre in which he reminded me of the phrase sitting with strangers in the dark, because that’s what theatre is, live theatre. And that’s what we lost in lockdown. And I’m actually a very, very introverted person. I mean, I know it might not look it, but I’m quite shy in the real sense of the term. And I sort of hate parties and I hate having to, you know, be on with lots of people at once and talk to lots of people at once. But theatre for me is a way of having a communal experience with a lot of other people, while still being utterly anonymous. At the same time. 

Kate  

This is why I hate audience participation, actually, because you’re, you’re there with all these other people, and you’re sharing it with them, but you’re looking at someone that, no one’s looking at you. And there are lots of times in my life where people are looking at me, like now I’m doing this podcast about me, and I’m a media person and writer and broadcaster. So there’s lots of me, me, me. And I get that. But there’s something really great about being in the back of the theatre, and, you know, you can even sneak in and no one knows you’re there. This is why audience participation freaks me out, because suddenly they turn the table. Suddenly that starts with me. So never, ever do that to me, please. But to me, that is something sacred, I think, there is a charm. It is that sense of communal, communal transcendence, which is sacred. And to me even more sacred than film because you’re not just sitting with strangers in the dark in the audience, you’re sitting with strangers in the dark, who are the performance as well, and they’re all in the dark with you. And there’s something that takes you out of the world and into something else. That’s equally true. 

Elizabeth 

Yeah, something a sacrament is some, some sort of, something sacramental is happening in front of you. I think, lots, lots of my theatre friends have said to me that over lockdown, they realise that theatre is their church, that is something. There’s a, there’s an emotional spiritual reset. That happened in moments of life theatre, and even people who deeply love their dance or their film, or, you know, poets come closest to talking to me about poetry as their prayer, you know, their form of sacred practice. I just, I love it. Another big thread in you has been politics and political life. Where did that itch each come from? What drew you? 

Kate  

Isn’t everyone drawn to politics at some stage? 

Elizabeth 

No. Absolutely not. 

Kate  

No, but I mean, the urge, the kind of idealistic element of it, yeah, to make a difference, the kind of you see the world in this horrible mess. And we all I mean, you know, anyone who has an ego thinks that it can contribute to making it better. And then we all discovered by the age of about 20, that we can’t. God, no, sorry, I should not be taking the Lord’s name in vain on this podcast. 

Elizabeth   

It’s totally fine. Much worse has happened on this podcast, honestly. 

Kate  

But I think it’s I think it’s a suitable response to the idea that any of us can really, you know, think we can solve it. But I mean, politics are about, is about ideas at its best, isn’t it? And obviously, I’ve always been interested in big ideas. And if anything, I’ve always been too drawn to the big ideas and the sweeping, you know, I become far more pragmatic as I get older, like loads of people. I mean, whether you come from the right or the left, ideology is more, you’re more susceptible to big ideology when you’re younger aren’t you. But politics is also about words, isn’t it? I was always interested in language politicians use and the kind of the theatre of speechmaking, and I don’t know, I don’t really know how to explain that one. Because I just don’t understand what it would like, be like not to be interested in politics. And I think it is a Christian thing in that, you know, we are charged with trying to make the world a better place. And actually, when you think about, I’m actually very suspicious of people who talk about God in politics, or and they’re particularly suspicious of anyone who tells you that the Bible tells you exactly what economic policy you should believe in. And as I sort of mentioned earlier, I think Christianity at its best is very much about effacement of the self and management of the ego. I nearly said suppression of the ego but that sounds almost too unhealthy. That is, that is something that is totally at odds with politics and with being in it. The other thing about politics, of course, is just that it’s addictive. And as someone who has not nearly as involved as I used to be, I still write about it. Something I have in common with all my friends who’ve left in some way is that itch. But you know, you still, I still obsessively check the papers on a Saturday night, even if I’m out with friends. And they’re all you know, having a life on a Saturday night, I’m looking at what the Sunday paper headlines are going to be looking at tomorrow’s papers today on Twitter and working out who’s going to be in trouble in Westminster as a result, and actually, I’m totally peripheral now, I really am. But you do the that kind of itch to keep on it. 

Elizabeth 

It is a form of theatre in itself, surely with the who’s the lead this week, and… 

Kate 

I suppose there’s a bit of that. But it’s, it’s something else. It’s about, the rhythms of it are very unusual. It’s you have certain weekly rhythms to Westminster, for example. And once they’re in you, they don’t go away. And I think it’s also the triumph of hope over experience, and that the world is full of people who’ve spent a bit of time in Westminster been utterly repulsed and walked away. And I know a lot of those people. But the best in them also still wants to be part of making the difference. And there are great people, I mean, to be just to be clear, I don’t want to sound like one of those kinds of waffle, oh, they’re all crooks, types, they’re not. And I still know people who are very active in Westminster, some of whom are MPs, some of whom are members of the household, some of people who are very involved in political parties, who are good people, and who are committed people. And it’s very, very hard to kind of stay pure to your ideals in that kind of world. But there are plenty of good people in politics, and I don’t mean to, to suggest otherwise. But it does chew up and spit out a lot of them. 

Elizabeth 

Yeah. And conservatism, your early forays into the political world was around the Conservative Party, what what the big ideas that meant that felt like the fit for you? 

Kate  

Well, I talked earlier about ideology. And you know, I still think I’m a conservative, broadly speaking, I’m a, you know, right wing liberal, if we want to look at those old Cold War forms of politics. I’ve always been a classical liberal in I hope, the real sense and not in the kind of Jordan Peterson sense. And I’m still incredibly sceptical that the government helps most of the time. You know, the bigger the government bureaucracy, the more inefficiency is my, my experience. And I always saw the left, I think, let’s go back to the kind of Eastern European Jewish roots, there’s a part of me that, you know, we still had relatives behind the Iron Curtain, we had some who literally crawled across the border of Hungary and Austria in 1956. So, if you go out with even any knowledge of what Sovietism meant, you understand the left as the pathway to that whether that’s fairly or unfairly, I certainly did when I was younger. And now because I recognise that I have lots of friends on the centre of the right at the Labour Party who, you know, are not proxies for Soviet takeover. I’m not actually, you know, living in the 1970s. But it’s there, and it shapes the kind of early ideas that you’re prepared to listen to. And so I still have always associated, I was gonna say, the Tory party with individual liberty, and we’re the kind of capitalists liberty and prosperity that I still broadly believe in. I recognise obviously, there are an awful lot of people in the current Conservative Party who looked like the opposite of freedom lovers, particularly on social issues. But to go all the way back to ideology, I think it’s fair to say that when I was younger, the ideology that attracted me was libertarianism. I mean, that kind of radical libertarianism where you almost abolish government, and you. And I had grown up and become a bit more pragmatic. And I realised that there are things like child care that needs some coordination, and not to mention defence, obviously, which have always been big on but you know, the care of the elderly, and I’m not stupid, and I recognise that, you know, government has, has a role. But I think that shift that was my shift from ideology to pragmatism, As I grew up, which I think a lot of people have from one ideology towards the centre was from Libertarianism towards a more kind of centre right pragmatism. One thing that I do still feel is, I mean, this might sound kind of, I don’t know whether this comes more from a kind of Catholic perspective. But good works are a kind of, or something deeply Calvinist in the sort of constant in the depravity of it. But I have a real sense of myself as flawed and of humanity as fallen. Sorry, I know this is very pessimistic a view of humanity. And some people will think it’s, well, some people find it very weird, but we are, you know, we are fallen, and we are flawed. And I’m afraid I do still think of life as a sort of test, or at least, the religious life as a challenge. And I’m therefore very wary of anyone trying to do my contribution to society for me, not because I don’t think it should be made, but because I think there is such like, the expression of as much free will in the direction of good is such an important test of the human experience. 

Elizabeth   

I do want to talk about a kind of period of challenge in your life, that, I really just want to give you full liberty to narrate, as you wish. But one of my questions that I wrote down before we started talking was, you have found yourself at points in your life in the midst of controversies. Of knotty, difficult questions of identity and behaviour. But while lots of people that I observe in public seemed like people who quite like that quite like a scrap. I haven’t sort of got that read from you. And I wanted to kind of ask, well, you to tell us a bit about perhaps your experiences around gender and talking about that in public and what that means as a woman and your reception as someone talking about gender in public.  

Kate  

I’m interested, you said that you don’t think I don’t come across as someone who’s up for scrap. Even when I do land on controversy. I think that’s fair. But at times, it might be overgenerous. I wouldn’t be a writer, which is primarily what I am. I wouldn’t be a writer, if I wasn’t sort of prepared to face the consequences of putting my words and my opinions out in public. And I think when we talk about some of the questions you’re talking about, like gender and sexual behaviour and morality, the more personal we become as writers in in throwing ourselves into those questions, the more we put other people around us at risk, and I always worry about that. I think it’s also fair to say that I can be quite dramatic. And I would like to say that I can be highly principled that other people would call it stubbornness and inflexibility. But I would say generally, you know, in the, in the world of social media abuse and all that there are a lot of people who don’t understand that those of us who are prepared to, you know, who have a column in a newspaper, or who do stuff on TV don’t also have kind of soft underbellies. And the reactions, the reaction still hurts, however, kind of, however strident you can go and be, and however much you dish it out. And one of the things I tried to challenge in myself, I think I get it wrong all the time is the extent to which I’m dishing it out, but versus the extent to which I can take it because I know that I attack other people in print, I like to think it’s holding them accountable for things they’ve done wrong, which is the job of a journalist. But I get that to some of them. It might look weird, when I then complain about people slagging me off on Twitter, you know, that we have to be prepared in that arena, to take what comes. But obviously, there’s stuff around being a woman that’s difficult. And you know, being involved in the Me Too movement, and being someone who made a complaint against someone very high profile. I do think that a lot of what I do is driven by a moral sense, that may be very self–aggrandising. And I recognise that other people will see it as such. But I think it also comes from a place of privilege. You know, I’m, I’m very lucky, we’re all taught to be honest, to check up revision, be honest about it. I think some people actually who are in similar positions to me in the world media aren’t honest about the extent of their financial security, for example, which I always see people pretending to be penniless, in my industry who aren’t. Because it is a very, very difficult industry to have any kind of foothold in, if you can’t afford to take risks for some time, or to go through thinner patches until you stabilise yourself. But I think with that kind of privilege, and I had a fantastic education, and I have a loving family and all those things, you have to be prepared to take one for the team, sometimes in society. And in terms of all the stuff I did and do on Me Too. It has always been about knowing that there were other women who are vulnerable, and knowing that there are women who have, you know, different ethnic and class and financial backgrounds, and indeed many, you know, gay men and queer people, and indeed straight men who, who, for example, experienced sexual harassment it, it can happen to anyone. So, actually, I think that is a kind of that is something I feel very deeply that it’s a moral obligation, if you know that you are in a strong position to complain about something and other people. And in terms of complaining about sexual harassment in the House of Commons. I’m not, I don’t mean about any particular individual, but about the house itself and the culture that that place has, which is still a problem. And we’ve just had the John Bercow report on bullying, which is a reminder of just you know, how bad certain behaviour can be. When it’s, it’s people who for whom the, the power of Parliament has gone to their heads.  

Elizabeth  

How did you, when you were in the midst of that horrible moment with a lot of backlash and kind of fighting newspapers for things they said about you? How did, what was your, how did you settle your soul? What was your kind of emotional stabilising tactics? 

Kate  

Well, that was about faith. And I mean, sometimes you also just have to physically distance yourself from something. So I went away, and I, actually it was very kind, the warden of my Oxford college invited me to stay with him. And I stayed there in his special house, which no one really knew about it, because I had photographers hanging around outside my own home and that kind of thing, which was horrible. But most importantly, I went back to New College chapel, and I would slip in back most days. I mean, I wasn’t there very long. But every, every time I was there, I did go and just listen to sacred music. I also went then and stayed with other friends, I went around very, you know, because it took about two months, or three months or even four, I can’t remember that. I spent most of that time living with different people so that I wouldn’t be at home. But sacred music. And I think to go back to Faith. One thing that I did mean to say that is really important, is I think the Me Too movement, like the Black Lives Matter movement is about a cry against injustice and demand for justice in the face of the powerful. But what I really recognised when that happened, and as a white woman looking on, I recognised that the hit, what was happening was the same thing that I had been part of which is a group of people who have been so repeatedly ignored and targeted in a way that everyone pretends doesn’t happen, but is every day, who finally we’re having a moment of being able to cry out. And that resonated, because I think it was what Me Too Movement was about. But it’s also something that’s talked about in the Bible the whole time. You know, those all those cries. “How long? Oh Lord, how long?” If you look at the Old Testament, and the Psalms, the Psalms are really about this, I think they’re about people who are living in societies where there is not, no democratisation of power. where power is concentrated in the hands where very few people in traditional structures and therefore is abused. That said, I would say I was very lucky. And I would say that being a, you know, affluent, well educated, well networked white woman had something to do with that, in that the civil service to take me seriously. And that’s one reason I have become a great defender of the civil service, although it has its flaws. I think one reason why I was able to make my case was that I spoke the language of Whitehall and I, you know, there, I’d learnt how to present myself and things like that, obviously, there was lots of supporting evidence, which I won’t go into now. But I suppose I experienced it as, as the experience of feeling powerless and crying out for justice, but also being privileged enough to have a better chance than other people to did when I balanced it. But yes, I just went back to those songs. And, and Psalm 91, which is my favourite. And is about, you know, those really dark times and the Lord still being there. 

Elizabeth 

I’m struggling to formulate this question. As you can tell, my questions could be pithier. But I, I just want to stay on that sense of the moment that we’re in and however you whatever term you use, you’re likely to alienate one, one gang or another. But I think you’re in a particularly interesting position, because you’re now kind of established scholar, Elizabeth I with a position at Cambridge. So, you have a kind of university as a big cultural institution hat. And you’re still very involved in kind of theatre and media, and you’ve had this very deep involvement with politics. And your been involved in index on censorship and have a free speech kind of thread to you. And as someone who’s spoken out in the in the MeToo moment and is know now for challenging, particularly theatre and antisemitism, but other things, you’re just, you’re sitting in lots of different interesting places, in a way that I have a hunch means that your, your analysis of this moment might be of use and of interest. So where are we with this shift towards more group based, more identitarian, cultural discourse? What is working? What isn’t working? Do you feel hopeful? Do you feel pessimistic? Give me the Kate Maltby analysis and that will be the final word. Obviously, no one will ever need to do anything. Just a small one for you there. 

Kate 

Well to be honest, I don’t feel adequate to that, that challenge. And I think one of the things, to be really honest and vulnerable that has been holding me back as a writer, is that I don’t think I have a positive offer. I think I’d like a lot of liberals with the old school. I you know, right, right, leaning classical liberals in that. We had a model for a broadly capitalist world that was emerging out of the shadow of the Cold War. And now it’s all gone to pot and we don’t know, we don’t know how to reimpose that, although I think the recognition of what happens when you have a major society like Russia, which completely distorts its media and completely distorts truth and ideas. Well, you know, having an autocratic the top I think that is going to perhaps, herald a bit of a shift back to the sort of Defense of the Enlightenment in defence of that old western ideal. But on identity politics, I also do think that we’re reaching a tipping point. I think there are certain issues. I mean, the trans debate is an extremely thorny topic in which, you know, people seem to talk to each other, particularly on Twitter without any sense of Christian charity, would, you know, some people, but I think, to which identitarian ideologies have taken us away from kind of practical problems of reality is beginning to get to a point of of a backlash. But I would be really sad if that meant of wiping out of liberal gains, for example, and, you know, in the trans debate, I would be really, really sad if, and I am sad that that so often seems to lead to real transphobia and real attacks on trans people, even by people who, you know, have an important point to make about the clashes about how to resolve competing rights. So yeah, I worry about, I suppose as a liberal, I worry about the anti–woke movement, because identitarian politics scares me. I’m probably saying all kinds of things that really will offend people, and just everyone’s gonna end up hating me after this. So shit. But it is important that if we move back to a world in which we don’t define people, first and foremost, by these kinds of big boxes, and I think a lot of identitarian politics wants to put those boxes back, you know, we want to define people by their race before we define them on anything else. And that to me, is regressive. I would hate to see that be adopted as it has been by a lot of people on the right. As a kind of as the politics of anti–wokeness. I do use you know, that as a deliberately pejorative term, as what masquerading actually is just an anti–liberal, anti inclusive politics, because the gains of liberalism are really important to me, you know, and, yeah… 

Elizabeth  

A plague on both their houses byt the sound of it. 

Kate 

But that’s what I always say, right? A plague on… I mean, I’m, I spend my life. I wouldn’t say being wishy washy in the middle, because obviously, I can be pretty strident, to use the term I used before. But picking my way through, I suppose, and often quite aggressively so myself that picking my way through extreme. I hate the culture wars. I mean, that’s basically it. I just, if I could just sum up with this. I hate the bloody culture wars Liz. I mean, it’s awful. And I hate the bogusness of it. I hate the, and the disingenuous, presenting your enemy as something they’re not which I think in all of the debates that I’ve just mentioned, there was an awful lot of somebody misrepresenting the other side in order to attack a false, you know, a straw man. And the highlight of it is dishonesty. So sorry, this is just me being angry and annoyed. 

Elizabeth 

My husband has a phrase better real confusion than false clarity and the admission that we don’t know. And that it’s complex, feels healthy and important.  

Kate 

Actually, that was something Lisa Jardine was always brilliant about. And in her. She’s one of the few people who I remember. I mean, a Simon Schama might be another who have as public intellectuals made radio programs and giving public speeches about complexity and about making actually a wonderful program just on complexity itself, I seem to recall. And that’s, I suppose what I would like to advocate for, I can sometimes cut right through something and be very simple in when I have a sort of very clarion call moral point that I want to make. But actually, I hope in all of my writing and talking, I’m advocating for more complexity and more complex thinking. Just to go back to the culture wars and polarisation. There’s a brilliant book called Poles Apart, by the way on what how polarisation happens even in businesses. That’s out at the moment that I recommend. But we were talking about my academic interests. Well, I’m not that grand academically, but I did finally complete a PhD on Elizabeth I, which is why I now have this thing at Cambridge. And that’s coming out as monograph. And I have I actually have a childhood adoration for Elizabeth but fortunately has become sort of tempered by scholarly detachment since and I have learned how to distance myself from being a five year old who is in love with a woman with the big dresses. But something that I do still really admire about her is that she, was she took the time of massive polarisation, religious polarisation. And I think we’ve lost a lot of our religious literacy, which means that it’s harder for people to the Tudors have never been more popular, but actually very few people understand the religious language that is needed to get any insight into what it was like to be alive at that point and how people think and thought and what people believed and what people were prepared to die for. And obviously, you have the Edwardian entrenchment of a hardline Protestant, when Edward VI was the boy king. And then you have I mean, contemporary Mary Tudor scholars will tell you that actually, she wasn’t really as you know, extremely, she’s painted blah, blah blah. But I still think, you know, was pretty bad. There were people being burnt alive for not being Catholic. And then Elizabeth, who wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and who had her own extremists too, you know, she had some really difficult firebrand politicians and preachers around putting pressure on her. But in so much as she sort of managed to really establish the Anglican Church as we know it, she did establish a broad church, and she more or less, you know, kept the country together, when they were as polarised as we are now, and found ways for people to live, live in that society. So that I think is still a model and that is one of the reasons she’s still a role model. That’s why I’m you know, my politics are also still Anglican in that they are broadly anti–polarisation and broad churchy. And I worry about the Anglican Church. I mean, we will do right. But something that has allowed kind of religious coexistence in that way. If even if only sort of in the aesthetic sense I think that’s worth fighting for. 

Elizabeth 

Yeah, that’s a genius in it. I am. And on the note of feeling affirmed that I can hold on to some of my also childish Elisabeth I fan girldom, Kate Maltby thank you so much for speaking to me on The Sacred.  

Kate 

Pleasure 

Elizabeth 

Honestly, every time I speak to someone who has a Jewish heritage, even people like Kate, who wouldn’t aren’t practising. I don’t know if practising is the correct language for Judaism, apologies if it’s not Kate would herself Christian rather than a practising Jew. She, yeah, she reminds me that there’s just no getting away from the Holocaust, that the Shoah is the word that many Jews use, the catastrophe. It it just sits like a great black hole in the middle of the 20th century. And the intergenerational trauma of that I I just don’t think we can, we can underestimate it and It sounds obvious. And for those of you who are Jewish or are much closer to these kinds of conversations that will sound obvious, but it’s maybe not easy, but if we let it it can become one of the things on the history syllabus, not this presence in the lives of so many people around the world still shaping so many reactions. I really enjoyed, actually the way she was careful about how she spoke about her family. I’ve spoken to quite a few memoirists in different interviews, and it’s often one of the most tricky things for them. Whose story are we allowed to tell? Given that, I would argue we’re not kind of atomised individuals but embedded in this beautiful web of relationships and that our stories intersect and interact. And I just loved hearing her wrestling with ethics actually, of telling the stories of her family and wanting to let them speak for herself. She was one of, for a columnist she was refreshingly open to saying I don’t know, or I’m not clear what I think on that issue, which doesn’t make great columns, obviously. But it is really helpful to be reminded that these people in public who seemed to have it all together, who know exactly what they think, who have strong opinions on every issue, might actually not on all things anyway. I really valued her being open about actually feeling quite pressured, in her academic path and university being quite stressful. There’s lots of people in public life like Kate who are senior and very impressive and we don’t talk about what some of that costs people. If you’re, you know, seen as bright or gifted the way sometimes education systems and families can impose a particular picture of what success looks like, on you and it’s lovely that she found such succour, I guess, peace help in the College chapel, I have such a strong picture of her now sitting in a beautiful gothic building, listening to choral music, listening to that sung high Anglican liturgy. So it does sort of make sense as well, her love of theatre and this sense of there being something sacred about the experience of live theatre. Sitting with strangers in the dark, the gift I think of people using their creative talents, night after night in front of an audience to to make people feel something to make people think deeply this container for reflection on our lives, that all of the arts are really but particularly I think live theatre has that powerful hold over people. The idea that everyone is interested in politics did make me laugh. Most of my family really are not except to feel cross at the, you know, the, whoever the idiots are at that particular moment in Westminster. But I guess it touches on this deeper sense that I think everyone is interested insofar as they have capacity to be depending on the pressures that they’re under, in the state of the world. And the fact it’s not how we hope it would be or we would wish it to be the crack in everything and in Leonard Cohen’s words, the fact that we’re not what we would wish to be in the world, that sadness, I guess that strong note, in the song of being a human, the sadness and The Melancholy of the brokenness of the world. And some people respond to that by wanting to get involved in politics. Some people do amazing civil society work. Some people will take their creative talents and try and kind of sing or act or paint or write about the state of the world. But we all have to find ways to live with it is one of the one of the things that I find most enriching about theology. And my faith is that’s a place I can go and wrestle with the state of the world that doesn’t require me having too much knowledge of the internal workings of Westminster politics anymore. And the final thing we talked about, and you can hear me I think, treading really carefully in how I spoke to Kate about her personal involvement with the MeToo movement in particular, although she’s often she’s also been drawn into things about anti–semitism. I find it really difficult actually, to speak to people who’ve had personal encounters, I think it’s important that we do speak to people who this has touched on very personally because otherwise it can get very theoretical very ungrounded from the reality of people’s pain. And there is power in testimony there is power in personal story and what happened to Kate speaking up against really inappropriate behaviour in Westminster, and then the absolute hounding that she got in the press is relevant to the conversation, but she rightly wants to be known for other things. She doesn’t always want to be the woman from those stories. She wants to be the scholar that she is and the critic that she is and the writer that she is. I often find it actually with guests wanting to have a really strong duty of care for the people that I’m talking to, whose voice I’m putting out into the world. But also being aware that done carefully reflecting on the stories with the people who have actually lived them can be really enlightening for us as we try and hack our way through the jungle. Thanks for listening.  

 


Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

 

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 1 June 2022

The Sacred, Theatre

Research

See all

In the news

See all

Comment

See all

Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.