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.