The Promise @ Orange Tree Theatre, London

cast list
Nicholas Asbury, Patrick Brennan, Richard Clothier, Miranda Colchester, Sam Dastor, Oliver Ford Davies, Christopher Ravenscroft, Michael Sheldon, Colin Stinton, Jonathan Tafler

directed by
Alan Strachan
Though ambitious in intention, depicting the negotiations that led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the question of how Britain came to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Ben Browns new play The Promise is only intermittently absorbing and suffers, at times, from a lack of dramatic tension.

Spanning eleven years, the play opens in 1914 with the noted chemist Chaim Weizmann lobbying the government to create just such a Jewish state.

The cause is taken up by Jewish cabinet minister Herbert Samuel, though it faces stiff opposition from other quarters, notably Lord Curzon (who urges caution and asks what will be done with the existing Arab population) and Edwin Montagu, also Jewish (and Samuel’s cousin), who views such plans as dangerous and even anti-Semitic, in that the creation of this homeland might generate further persecution of the Jewish people.
Their voices are, however, in the minority and the Zionist scheme goes ahead. The play ends in 1925 with the opening of the University of Jerusalem.

The main virtue of Browns play is in the way it requires the audience to listen to all the different points of view, to genuinely think about and weigh up both sides of the debate. In this he succeeds, but he never quite manages to achieve a good balance between the political and the personal threads of the play.

The latter comes in the form of the triangular relationship between Montagu, his eventual wife, the socialite Venetia Stanley, and the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Despite being married and old enough to be her father, Asquith is infatuated with Venetia. He writes her a constant stream of letters (some penned during cabinet meetings) and makes her swear not to marry until after his death.

In order to marry Montagu, Venetia has to convert to Judaism (his inheritance would be jeopardized if he married outside the faith). Not long after her decision to wed him (and, perhaps, as a result of it, Brown appears to be saying), Montagu loses his position in the Cabinet and does not return to office until 1917 by which time the Zionist cause has gained considerable support.

Having set up this curious – and potentially fascinating – tangle of relationships, Brown simply lets it fall. At times it feels like he only included this particular strand to provide a little respite from all the scenes of grey-haired men sitting round tables. Asquiths obsession and Venetias eventual betrayal of him (selling her correspondence to Lord Beaverbrook), are ripe with dramatic potential but this potential is sacrificed.

There is also little in the way of exploration of any of the characters in any area other than their stance on Zionism. Despite a competent performance from Oliver Ford Davies, Arthur Balfours motivations remain hazy, and Christopher Ravenscroft is given little room to do much with Asquiths oddities and quirks. Miranda Colchester fails to convey the necessary charismatic spark that her character should presumably exude and theres something unconvincing, when it comes, in her pivotal emotional crisis.

Alan Strachans production is solid and very successful in the way it conveys the complexities of the situation, investing a sense of power and urgency into scenes of political debate, but it’s also a rather bitty. There are rather too many little scene changes that impact on the flow of the production, too much fiddling and twiddling with desks and chairs.

Brown captures the strength of feeling that the subject of the Jewish state is capable of creating. He presents both sides in an even handed manner and resists the urge to look back from the present and pass judgement; but, as a play, The Promise feels oddly lacking. Its a string of scenes, an articulate and balanced history lesson, rather than a cohesive and satisfying piece of theatre.

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