The title for Ben Brown’s gripping political play draws on the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, when the British government promised Zionists the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. But the original promise of “next year in Jerusalem” has an ancient scriptural basis.
Miranda Colchester (Venetia Stanley) and Christopher Ravenscroft (Herbert Asquith) in The Promise at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond Photo: Tristram Kenton
Brown’s time frame runs from December, 1914, when the future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann met Herbert Samuel in Whitehall, to the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925. But these deftly outlined 11 years provide material for a dazzling drama of Cabinet power struggles and sexual passions that were to influence British politics throughout the Great War and its aftermath.
In theatrical terms, the evening is dominated by a tug of love between the enchanting socialite Venetia Stanley, played with vivid, feminine grace by Miranda Colchester, and the three men who adored her. Prime minister Herbert Asquith ran his wartime team drawing energy from his enduring fondness for Venetia, expressed in several thousand private letters. She chose to marry the Jewish Edwin Montagu, an implacable opponent of Zionism, while reserving her secret affections for the influential press magnate Max Beaverbrook, a pugnacious power broker in Colin Stinton’s telling performance.
The story unfolds with precision and perception in Alan Strachan’s staging, which for its historical insights could merit a transfer to the National. Meanwhile, this handsomely costumed Orange Tree production includes many revelatory moments, none more telling than the peeling away of a Middle East floor map to reveal an Arabic setting of tessellated tiles, upon which Jonathan Tafler’s cocksure Weizmann treads with the chutzpah of a triumphant occupier.