Friday 12 March 2010

The Promise (Orange Tree Theatre)

Opened last month at Richmond’s tiny, lovely, in-the-round Orange Tree Theatre, Ben Brown’s ambitious new play The Promise takes as its subject the origins of Israel, no less, specifically the British government’s involvement in securing a Jewish state via the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The play’s protagonists include historical figures both well- and lesser-known, including two PMs, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George, Lord Balfour, Max Beaverbrook, Chaim Weizmann, and, perhaps most intriguingly, two Jewish Cabinet ministers, cousins Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montagu, the former supportive of the idea of a Jewish homeland, the latter fiercely opposed to it.

But Brown's play is careful - in fact, maybe a bit too careful - to balance the personal with the political. Indeed, it comes close to suggesting that the cause of the Israel/Palestine conflict - or, at least, of Britain’s eventual involvement in the decision - was Asquith’s obsessive passion for the aristocrat Venetia Stanley. According to the play’s (fuzzy) logic, when Venetia spurns Asquith for Montagu, the PM’s response is to kick Montagu out of the Cabinet. In so doing, Brown suggests, the Cabinet loses a member who would have approached the Balfour Declaration more circumspectly. So somehow, folks, it’s pretty much the woman who gets the blame.

Before going any further, I should probably confess here my aversion to modern drama’s fixation on the lives of historical and contemporary real-life figures. As best (or worst) exemplified by Peter Morgan’s overrated output, this trend often seems to me to be just another manifestation of celeb-obsession. That being said, and notwithstanding the slightly loony nature of the motives that the play ascribes to Asquith, I found The Promise to be a fairly absorbing experience. There are awkward moments, to be sure - in fact, the production begins with one, opening as it does with the sound of present-day news reports on Israel/Palestine, a ham-fisted attempt at contemporary relevance. But the Orange Tree space gives the piece intensity and immediacy and allows the central arguments to resonate in a clear and accessible manner. Brown’s dialogue isn’t bad, and the production (directed by Alan Strachan) has a pretty good pace. (Playwright and director previously collaborated on 2006’s Larkin with Women.)

In keeping with the very high performance standards of the OT, the actors register strongly. As is the case in so many of these real-people dramas, Patrick Brennan’s Lloyd George isn't allowed to develop far beyond caricature (though it’s an entertaining caricature, at least), but the other roles feel fully inhabited. Miranda Colchester brings elegance and humour to Venetia’s predicament, the always-reliable Oliver Ford Davies offers a typically wry and thoughtful account of Balfour, and Nicholas Asbury gives Montagu force and conviction. Christopher Ravenscroft - so good in last year's brilliant OT revival of Alison’s House - is again particularly effective here. With his emotion-filled voice, the actor makes Asquith’s passion for Venetia at once slightly sinister and deeply sympathetic. (Kudos, too, to Sam Dastor who takes on three different roles in the production: rabbi, Brit politician and Arab - what versatility!) A worthwhile evening, this.


  1. You seem to have been to many theatres recently! Have you ever been to the Old Vic Theatre? It looks wonderful. They have a Tom Stoppard production coming up in April, "The Real Thing." I'm a fan of Tom Stoppard and a fan of Kevin Spacey, the artistic director there. Will that be a production you will see or review?

  2. I haven't booked for THE REAL THING yet, but may go to it later in the run. I reviewed the current Old Vic show a couple of months ago:

    SIX DEGREES is one of my favourite plays. Have you seen it - or the film version?

    I saw Kevin Spacey play RICHARD II at the OV in 2005, but that's the only time I've seen him on-stage.

  3. I haven't yet seen the film version of SIX DEGREES, though now it is on my lists of "must see." I adore Stockard Channing and I always enjoy watching Will Smith.

    The saying you referenced, "how every new person is a door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people," seems so true! It's all about the right six people. Once the right people get together it's a magical reaction. Kevin Spacey, Tom Stoppard and Sam Mendes or Tim Burton with Danny Elfman or the close knit group Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Walter Matthau, Billy Wilder. It's really amazing when you look behind the scenes of your favorite plays or films and see the connections.

    I got a bit excited just there because every article I stumbled across when I looked into plays I liked referenced the same people.

    Kevin Spacey, in my experience seeing his films, is a talented and magical actor. He can completely become whichever character he decides to be and it's so interesting to watch. The days of talented actors seems limited now with such films out like "Twilight" and "Transformers."

    Side note - Really good theatre, to me, is an experience that delights my soul. There is nothing like it.