The Promise

Ben Brown
Orange Tree Theatre

Production photo

Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of the State of Israel, was a Jewish émigré from Russian who, while Professor of Chemistry at Manchester University, made a significant contribution to the British military effort during the First World War by developing a way of producing acetone. He was also an ardent Zionist lobbying the British government's support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland.

This play begins in December 1914 when it was already becoming clear that if the war should topple the Turkish Empire, with the participant allies haggling for control in the Middle East, it would provide an opportunity for territorial changes. Weizmann (Jonathan Tafler) has already secured a meeting in Whitehall and he is in the office of Herbert Samuel (Richard Clothier) about to outline his proposals. It ends with the opening of the Jewish University in Jerusalem in 1925, completion of the first stage of Weizmann's Zionist dream.

It takes us into the centre of government, with ministers around a table in Number 10 under both the Asquith and Lloyd George administrations . We are given the heart of the discussions on support for a Jewish state that led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. This, the British 'promise', was a key element in the creation of today's problems in the Middle East.

It is a fascinating view 'behind the scenes' with a confidence in the writing that suggests it must, like more obvious 'verbatim' theatre, have drawn its cabinet statements and public speeches from government records and contemporary reports.

In parallel we have the personal story of another Jewish but anti-Zionist cabinet minister Edwin Montagu (Nicholas Asbury) and Venetia Stanley (Miranda Colchester), the woman he married and with whom Prime Minister Asquith (Christopher Ravenscroft) is infatuated. To some extent this seems a rather conventional formula to inject some focussed human interest but it also raises the question of how much, if at all, such private matters as human jealousy can influence political affairs. There is another promise Asquith pressures from Venetia, and one she does not keep and the letters he wrote her, sometimes several times a day, are another important source of information about cabinet matters.

Brown gives us almost nothing to explain the strange relationship between Asquith and Lady Venetia or why her advice seemed so important to him. Nor does he offer much about the other politicians outside political matters. One would especially have liked to know more about Arthur Balfour and why he continued as such a staunch supporter of the Zionists. Oliver Ford Davies's playing suggested something more personal than his political concept of a buffer state. No actor listens better than he does but this man is deaf to other ideas..

However, although the concentration is on the political argument, Alan Strachan's direction and the performances of his exemplary cast make all these characters seem very real.

Also around the cabinet table are Michael Sheldon's Arthur Milner, adding a vital amendment to the Declaration, Patrick Brennan's Lloyd George, later taking over as PM, who adds a breath of humour, and Sam Dastor briefly appearing as Lord Curzon, with just one speech, a key one, in which he sees the declaration as 'a poisoned chalice' and Zionism as 'sentimental idealism.' This being in the round, he had his back to me but it was most effectively delivered even though I never saw his face. Dastor also has an amusing double as a very relaxed rabbi while Michael Sheldon is the manipulative Max Beaverbrook.

Despite references to strategy, munitions and theatres of war -- and newspaper front pages mounted above the set -- there is little sense that this is all going on within the context of the horrors of World War One. Is this a deliberate attempt to suggest the distance between those conducting the war and the men at the front? In a way, despite the period suiting, this lack of emotional emphasis on the war makes it less a period piece. It feels amazingly contemporary and it is impossible to watch it without seeing not just the seeds of modern problems but modern parallels, especially in the way that some politicians ignore the effect of their actions on the people who actually live in the territories they are discussing.

Edwin Montagu saw the creation of a Jewish State as a threat to the world's Jews, an excuse for not seeing them as part of one's own nation, for dismissing Judaism, as Asquith does, as 'a narrow sterile tribal creed.' In final scene, when the map of the middle east on which designer Sam Dowson has set the action, has been rolled away to reveal a dazzle of colourful Arab tiling, Weizmann and Balfour in academic robes and Samuel, now High Commissioner in Palestine, are about to attend the opening of the Jewish University in Jerusalem. Already, to Balfour's discomfort though he says nothing, Weizmann is talking about an 100% Jewish state in contradiction to the wording of the Declaration ,and even seems to welcome the rising anti-Semitism in Poland and Germany that is sending him immigrants to create it. The repercussions to come we know about, must Britain and the United States and France who gave the Declaration their support accept some responsibility for them too?

Until 20th March 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton