Lyttelton, National Theatre, London (****)

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Toby Stephens (Terje Rød-Larsen), Lydia Leonard (Mona Juul), projections by 59 Productions

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Toby Stephens (Terje Rød-Larsen), Lydia Leonard (Mona Juul), the personal dwarfed by the public and political. Projections by 59 Productions

J T Rogers is not new to British audiences. Anyone who saw his Rwanda-based The Overwhelming (2006, with Out of Joint and the NT) or Blood and Gifts (part of Nicholas Kent’s extraordinary and impressive survey of western involvement in Afghanistan – The Great Game in 2009) or the later Madagascar (at Theatre503 in 2010) will know that he’s a writer who lacks to tackle big political subjects.

With Oslo, he is confronting nothing less than the intransigent tragedy that is the Israel-Palestinian situation. In 1993, against all the odds, Israel, in the shape of its prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat shook hands and signed the Oslo Accords or Agreement on the White House lawn with President Bill Clinton presiding.

But it was not the Americans who had manufactured this remarkable reconciling of oppositional forces and hatred. The journey to the White House lawn had come about as a result of behind-the-scenes, secret negotiations conducted by the Norwegians and in particular, a husband and wife team, Terje Rød Larsen and Mona Juul – he a sociologist and head of a research institute, she an official in the Foreign Ministry.

Oslo is the story of their contrivance and diplomacy to get to the two sides to even sit down the one with the other – implacable enemies, already steeped in decades of violence and bitterness – to work towards, on the one hand, an acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, and on the other, the acknowledgement of the PLO as legitimate spokesman for the Palestinian state’s right to exist.

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, the hand0shake - a first step. Paul Herzberg as Yair Hirschfeld and Nabil Elouahabi agreeing to start...

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, the hand0shake – a first step. Paul Herzberg as Yair Hirschfeld and Nabil Elouahabi agreeing to start…

As any story going behind-the-scenes of history, it gives audiences a thrilling and enthralling sense of being, for once, on the `inside’ of events. And Rogers keeps personalities and the narrative rattling along, the personal constantly clashing up against `big’ historical forces with cries of `we are going to change the world’ resounding round the auditorium.

Director Bartlett Sher’s award winning production from New York’s Lincoln Center, too plays for grandeur in Michael Yeargan’s vaulted Norwegian setting. At the centre is the quixotic, opportunistic, complex figure of Rød-Larsen himself (Toby Stephens in typically bravura mode) and Lydia Leonard as his pragmatically astute wife, Mona Juul (a wonderfully understated, sweetly ironic performance).

For much of Oslo, you could be forgiven for thinking this is another example of bullish male behaviour as one heated encounter follows another.

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul, the calm centre of the storm...

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul, the calm centre of the storm…

But with clever sleight of hand, Rogers contrives that Mona in a very real and practical sense becomes the lynch-pin – the calming centre in this tumultuous storm exerting a restraining hand on a husband whose first instinct is to micro-manage and over-intervene.

And, in the end, in the most poignant moment of the evening although the aftermath shows the further tragedies befalling the architects of this momentous if temporary breakthrough (Rabin was assassinated, a second Palestinian intifada soon followed the Agreement), Larsen and Juul’s belief in the possibility of, one day, a solution being found and this being just the first step on the long road towards it, is the shining glory of their efforts and Rogers’ portrait of it.

In all senses it is an ensemble, team effort with each character richly filled out. But Stephens and Lydia Leonard aside, outstanding contributions are made by Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie, the Palestinian Foreign Minister – a hard negotiator but one prepared, despite his own misgivings, to go that extra mile.

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Peter Polycarpou (Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurie with Philip Arditti's Israeli Uri Savir cutting a hard bargain...

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Peter Polycarpou (Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurie with Philip Arditti’s Israeli Uri Savir cutting a hard bargain…

He’s matched by Philip Arditti’s bumptious, volatile, and dangerous Israeli Uri Savir (Rogers’ sympathies, you have to feel, are rather more with the Palestinians than the Israelis), a deadly practical joker and exponent of the counter-bluff whose impersonation of Arafat – a high point – could have gone so easily wrong. And almost does.

Ultimately, in a scene reminiscent of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods – another play about negotiation and political breakthroughs – Qurie and Savir come to a surprising realisation and discovery of common personal ground in the shape of their daughters sharing the same name, Maya. Larsen and Juul’s great insight was to realise just how politically useful the cultivation of the personal can become, when it comes to achieving strategic political ends.

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, a walk in the woods, Palestinian (Peter Polycarpou) and Israeli (Philip Arditti)

© Brinkhoff Mögenburg, a walk in the woods, Palestinian (Peter Polycarpou) and Israeli (Philip Arditti)

Time and again, Rogers’ Oslo put this viewer also in mind of other secret negotiations that have eventually brought a kind of peace – the IRA and the British government’s Peace Agreement being the most domestically relevant one. Eventually jaw-jaw has to be the way forward. Will back-stairs, secret negotiations also eventually become the way to defuse the current holders of power in North Korea and Washington?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, Rogers’ Oslo remains a slightly bombastic, occasionally humorous but tension-filled and fascinating blueprint of dialogue through high level subterfuge and the use of `minor’ officials (two Israeli economic professors) to start identifying the human inside the enemy leading to that all important symbol, the hand-shake – the recognition of mutual respect.

Certainly worth the journey. An important and timely piece of work.

A new play by J T Rogers 

The Norwegians:
Johan Jørgen Holst, Foreign Minister: Howard Ward
Jan Egeland, Deputy Foreign Minister: Thomas Arnold
Mona Juul, official in the Foreign Ministry: Lydia Leonard
Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the Fafo Institute: Toby Stephens
Marianne Heiberg, executive with the Fafo Institute: Geraldine Alexander
Toril Grandal, housekeeper and cook: Geraldine Alexander
Finn Grandal, groundsman: Howard Ward
Thor Bjornevog, senior officer with the Police Intelligence Service: Daniel Stewart
Trond Gundersen, officer with the Police Intelligence Service: Anthony Shuster

The Palestinians:
Ahmed Qurie, Finance Minister: Peter Polycarpou
Hassan Asfour, official PLO liaison: Nabil Elouahabi

The Israelis:
Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister: Paul Herzberg
Yossi Beilin, Deputy Foreign Minister: Jacob Krichefski
Uri Savir, Director-General of the Foreign Ministry: Philip Arditti
Joel Singer, legal advisor to the Foreign Ministry: Yair Jonah Lotan
Yair Hirschfeld, senior professor of economics: Paul Herzberg
Ron Pundak, junior professor of economics: Thomas Arnold

US Diplomat: Daniel Stewart
German Husband: Anthony Shuster
German Wife: Karoline Gable
Swedish Hostess: Karoline Gable

All other characters are played by members of the company

Director: Bartlett Sher
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Sound Designer: Peter John Still
Projections: 59 Productions
Hair and Wig Designer: Tom Watson
Company Voice Work: Jeannette Nelson
Dialect Work: Michaela Kennen
Fight Director: Jonathan Holby
Associate Director: Oscar Toeman

Project Producer (NT): Kash Bennett
Executive Producer (ATG): Adam Speers
General Manager (ATG): Zareen Walker
Casting: Juliet Horsley

Lincoln Center Theater production presented by the National Theatre.

Produced in association with Ambassador Theatre Group/Gavin Kalin Productions/Glass Half Full Productions

UK premiere of this production of Oslo in the Lyttelton Theatre, London, Sept 15, 2017. Runs to Sept 23, 2017.

Transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from Oct 2-Dec 30, 2017
World premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater, NY, June 16, 2016

Review published on this site, Oct 19, 2017