The Promise, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-on-Thames, February 2010

The title of Ben Brown’s new play refers to the promise of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, embodied in the Balfour declaration of 1917. The events leading up to this remarkable document are both political, and personal, and start with a meeting in December 1914 between Chaim Weizmann and British cabinet minister Herbert Samuel. Weizmann was born in Russia, educated at German universities, and at the time of his meeting with Samuel was a British subject working as a Chemistry lecturer at Manchester University. His first hand experience of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe propelled his ardent wish to found a Jewish State, but he expected Samuel, as a comfortably-off Jew to be against the idea. In fact Samuel was sympathetic, but Edwin Montagu, another Jewish cabinet minister, was adamantly against

However, prime minister Herbert Asquith was romantically obsessed with Venetia Stanley, who became Montagu’s wife, after which Montagu lost his seat in Cabinet. By the time he got back into power, helped by the good offices of newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook, who started an affair with Venetia, there was a national unity government and it was too late to stop the momentum. Balfour was in favour, and the prime minister, now David Lloyd George, saw British control of Palestine as a useful counterbalance to the French, and possibly even the Germans, who were also thinking of promising a Jewish homeland there.

Would events have turned out differently if Montagu had stayed in the cabinet? Who knows, but his claim that it would lead to a rejection of Jews in England was not borne out by future events, nor were Lord Curzon’s claims that the agricultural land was poor and unable to support a larger population.

The designs by Sam Dowson worked well, with several scene shifts, done by the actors themselves. These, along with the romantic and political intrigues, propel the action forward, and Oliver Ford Davies was entirely convincing as Balfour, a man who was nearly 70 at the time of the declaration. This entertaining and informative play is not to be missed, though I understand the present run is almost sold out!

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