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The Balfour Declaration, promising a Homeland to the Jews on London Stage
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Strand, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty four years. They have a son and a daughter in their twenties – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier called Bertie! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com  

The promise of the title is made in the Balfour Declaration, promising a Homeland to the Jews, drafted in the British Cabinet in 1917 and published in the form of a letter from Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild later the same year.

In the young playwright Ben Brown’s well researched and often gripping play, the personal and the political combine to shape events not just in 1917 but for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Brown has a stake in the story too, for his father is Jewish.

Brown’s story begins during the First World War at a time when the ramifications of the War raging across Europe meant the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was tottering and various European powers could see a role for themselves filling the vacuum. British politicians were keen to keep other nations, especially France out of the territory the French sometimes referred to as Southern Syria – more familiarly Palestine.

The idea of a British Mandate rather than a self-governing territory seems to have chimed well with the influential and persuasive Chaim Weizmann’s request not for the Jews to have their own country, but their own ‘national home’. In Jonathan Tafler’s effective performance Weizmann is playing the long game – he does not think the Jews will be ready to run their own country for another fifty years, but he is laying the foundations with some confidence.

Weizmann has a champion in the form of Herbert Samuel, the first practising Jew to hold office in the British cabinet. His principal non Jewish interlocutor is Arthur Balfour, a politician and cabinet minister who already has behind him a brief and not very successful stint as prime minister. He is sympathetic to the Jewish people, scattered and oppressed in so many countries and takes up their cause as presented to him by Weizmann.

Asked in a post show discussion about Balfour’s motives for his strong support for the Jews, Brown speculates that he wants to be remembered for a significant act, to have aspirations to leave a legacy, much like Tony Blair. Skilfully portrayed by one of Britain’s finest actors Oliver Ford Davies (a magnificent Polonius last year to David Tennant’s Hamlet) he comes over as a skilled and measured politician delighted to find that a humane and compassionate act can be seen by enough of his colleagues as politically sound to make it actually happen.

I have to admit to some surprise that the Jews were the subject of so much discussion and that there was that much sympathy for them, given the casual anti-Semitism endemic in Britain at that time, especially among the upper classes.

Ranged against Balfour in Cabinet are not only such English aristocrats as Lord Curzon (chillingly convincing Sam Dastor, equally convincing in other cameo roles), whose long view predicts the violent struggle to which ‘the promise’ will lead, but also Britain’s second practising Jewish Cabinet minister, Edwin Montagu, Herbert Samuel’s cousin. He sees the idea of the Jewish homeland as a potential disaster, which will encourage anti-Semites worldwide to deny Jews citizenship in other countries if they have one of their own to go to.

By the time the audience finds itself cast as flies on the wall at this Cabinet meeting in what is easily the most gripping scene of the play, Montagu has returned to Cabinet in David Lloyd George’s government after a spectacular fall from favour during the premiership of Herbert Asquith earlier in the War.

The trouble starts over a woman. Asquith has become obsessed with the aristocratic young Venetia Stanley, many years his junior, writing to her often many times a day, and while he does not exactly court her, he does stop her from being courted by others for at least three years. In order to escape, she takes the momentous step of converting to Judaism to marry Montagu (there’s a large inheritance at stake if she does not convert), hence his ejection from Cabinet and into the political wilderness by a furious Asquith.

And so Brown’s play traces the first of two triangles involving Venetia and Montagu and charts the way the personal influences the political with all those ramifications down the years. The second triangle is completed by the Canadian newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook, who asks for access to her letters from Asquith for a book he is writing and finds himself also granted access to Venetia herself by a perhaps rashly trusting Montagu.

Although the play is never less than absorbing, the domestic scenes involving Venetia seem to slow the pace of the political narrative, for it is Brown’s bracing revelations of the facts and his interpretations of events and depiction of the people behind them that really engages the attention.

Admittedly those domestic scenes have their part to play in the political and Christopher Ravenscroft’s Asquith is suitably creepy in his ardour for the much younger Venetia.

Miranda Colchester’s Venetia is certainly decorative in a series of gorgeous period gowns, but Brown has perhaps not made her quite as fascinating as Asquith, Montagu and Beaverbrook seem to find her. Nicholas Asbury’s Montagu is all passionate intelligence, whether in love or war, but for my money I would have liked to have seen more made of his relationship with his cousin Herbert Samuel. Samuel (articulate and intelligent in Richard Clothier’s portrayal) is as drawn to Zionism as his cousin Montagu is repelled by it, but it’s only in the last scene of the play that you learn that although Montagu is nine years younger than Samuel, these cousins who came to have such opposing views were actually brought up together.

This final scene is set in Jerusalem in 1925 at the end of Samuel’s stint as High Commissioner during the early days of the Mandate – the first Jew for two thousand years to govern in what is now Israel/Palestine. Here I go, yielding to the temptation to share some of the facts I have learned in an evening as educational as it is entertaining, which can’t be bad!
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The Promise continues at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, South West London until 20 March. The box office number is 0044 (0)208 3633, or book online at www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk  
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Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman
  • The Arab- Israeli Melting Pot

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  • Judi Herman

    Oliver Ford Davies as Arthur Balfour , Photos Robert Day.

    Nicholas Asbury as Edwin Montagu and Miranda Colchester as Venetia Stanley

    Richard Clothier as Herbert Samuel and Jonathan Tafler as Chaim Weizmann

    Christopher Ravenscroft as Herbert Asquith and Miranda Colchester as Venetia Stanley

    Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952)

    Arthur Balfour (1848-1930)

    Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (1868-1937)

    Herbert Samuel (1870-1963)

    Edwin Samuel Montagu (1879-1924)

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