The Promise

David Wurtzel believes the cast deftly balances the personal with the political and imitate without mimicking the historical figures.

“The promise” is the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 which said that the British Government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. It lies at the heart of Ben Brown’s fine play, performed in the round at the Orange Tree. For much of the action, the floor is covered by a map of the Ottoman Empire. Not the least of the many historical ironies which run through the production is the sight of British ministers, sitting in London, carving up that Empire before the First World War has actually been won.

The first scene is set in an Edwardian garden in the early days of World War I. An unusual triangle links Venetia Stanley (a beautiful Miranda Colchester), and the two men who are in love with her: the rich, Jewish and politically ambitious Edwin Montagu (a poignant Nicholas Asbury) and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith (Christopher Ravenscroft, with a permanent lightness of touch). Asquith apparently takes his passion no further than holding Venetia’s hands but he writes to her daily even as he ostensibly presides over the War Cabinet. Montagu offers marriage but on condition that Venetia officially converts to Judaism, thus complying with the condition of his father’s will. Venetia for her part does not seem to be in love with either one of them. There is a splendid scene in which the most liberal rabbi in London explains monotheism to the freethinking Venetia.

The second half

The compelling personal drama of the first half gives way to more political debate and historical dimension in the second half. Politics, we learn, is both personal and thinks in the short term. Lloyd George (by then Prime Minister) favours a British mandate in Palestine in order to keep the French (still our war allies) far away from the Suez Canal. The Foreign Secretary, Balfour, has been pro-Zionist for several years. Lord Curzon points out that he is the only one around the table who has actually been to Palestine. He assures everyone that it is a barren land and inhospitable to large Jewish immigration. The great dividing line is between the two assimilated Jews in the Cabinet, Herbert Samuel (now a Zionist) and Montagu.

Mongatu believes that Jews in any event should be “a religion, not a race”. If the national home for Jews is in Palestine, why give them equal rights anywhere else? Three million oppressed Russian Jews might find a better life in the Middle East, but what about the six million left behind in Europe? The words “six million”—the number who would later be murdered by the Nazis—hung like a pall over the auditorium.

A triumphant note

The play ends on a triumphant note: Samuel and Balfour opening the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Offstage one hears the clamour of Arab voices. The indigenous majority (then outnumbering Jews by six to one) had been represented by no one at the British Cabinet table. The large cast deftly balances the personal with the political and imitate without mimicking the historical figures. Patrick Brennan has great fun as Lloyd George, easily outmanoeuvring the lovesick Asquith. Sam Dastor played convincingly three roles: the arrogant, aristocratic Curzon, the worldly liberal rabbi and an obedient Arab servant.

Author details: 
David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.