National Theatre, 19th September 2017
Well I’ll be damned. I didn’t book Oslo at the earliest opportunity, as is my wont for most of the NT output, and only took a swing at it because of the NYC reviews. And even then I wasn’t sure. I mean how could a near 3 hour, straight dramatisation of the negotiations which led to the signing of the Oslo Accord between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, possibly form the basis for a riveting work of theatre?
Well it turns out riveting is exactly what it is. Writer JT Rodgers has understood from the master of such entertainments, a certain Will Shakespeare, exactly how to write a “history play”. Get the context in early and make sure we know who is who and why they are there. Weave this information into the drama, but don’t hesitate to repeat it, in this case through the use of a direct to audience narration from Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard. Make the scenes short and sweet. Do not permit long, expository monologues. Show the human side of the people but don’t hold back on the process (we the audience don’t need to be patronised – we will get it). In this case, given that the whole purpose of the negotiations in Oslo was to bypass the confrontational and procedural approach of the formal peace negotiations sponsored by the US, showing the humanity of the key protagonists came naturally through the dialogue. Don’t fret too much about sticking too closely to the exact facts – this is drama after all. Finally give us some ebb and flow, some tension, some heroics and sacrifices and some cliffhanger moments. Oh and stuff in plenty of humorous interludes.
Mona Juul is an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Toby Stephens) runs an Institute and meets pragmatic Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Jacob Krichefski). They offer a neutral, and clandestine, forum in Oslo, to the desperate PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou), and his Marxist sidekick, Hassan Asfour (Nabil Elouahabi), to meet two scruffy Israeli economics professors played by Paul Herzberg (who also doubled as Shimon Peres no less) and Thomas Arnold, to discuss the route to peace. As progress is made, the Israeli side is upgraded with the arrival of colourful Foreign Ministry senior official Uri Savir, (Philip Arditti) and eventually wary legal big cheese Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan). With the assistance of Howard Ward, Geraldine Alexander Daniel Stewart, Anthony Shuster and Karoline Gable doubling up in the supporting roles, the ensemble is completed.
And what an ensemble. Whilst the writer is possessed of of an impeccably direct, funny and natural style, this was never going to work as well as it did without such perfect casting. Toby Stephens nails Rod-Larsen’s urbane mateyness but also left us wondering over his motives. Lydia Leonard (with whom I am a little bit in love I admit) was all archness and efficient charm You really believed that Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti’s characters found a shared bond that could bridge their massive political differences. And you reflect, with Toby Stephens’ final lines, on how uplifting the better side of our nature can be, even if so often, we (and our politicians on our behalf if we choose them), fail to let it shine.
This is a properly gripping and affecting story, expertly told, directed with stonking momentum by Bartlett Sher and with a suitably ambassadorial set from Michael Yeargan. If there is any justice it should fill the house at Harold Pinter Theatre for the transfer. I heartily recommend it.