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1 October 2017

Political thriller Oslo is an absorbing, brainy, often funny play

As Rød-Larsen, a commanding Toby Stephens cleverly keeps the audience guessing.

By Mark Lawson

Although speech is the meat of theatre, too much can choke a production, leaving us wishing we’d stayed at home and listened to the radio. So the American dramatist JT Rogers took a significant risk in writing a play about talks.

Oslo dramatises the secret negotiations, brokered by the Norwegian government, that resulted in Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands on a (perhaps inevitably brief) peace accord outside the Clinton White House in September 1993. Despite its forbidding content and sparse staging – just a few chairs and a table – the play became a Broadway hot ticket earlier this year, winning two Tony awards.

The 39-year-old Rogers is unusual in favouring a form – the political thriller – more popular with novelists than playwrights. Within that genre, his speciality is the western-interventionist cliffhanger: two previous plays seen at the National – The Overwhelming (2006) and Blood and Gifts (2010) – dramatised diplomatic, military and charitable missions in Rwanda and Afghanistan. Oslo’s depiction of the Middle East peace process creates a trilogy examining intractable civil conflicts, but with the fascinating twist that only fragmentary action takes place in the actual war-zone.

Oslo resembles a geopolitical equivalent of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: a well-known story is unexpectedly seen from the perspective of peripheral Scandinavians. With the exception of Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister (later PM), nicely played by Paul Herzberg as a silky pragmatist, the negotiators will be unknown to most playgoers.

The ringmaster is Terje Rød-Larsen, head of a Norwegian international think-tank, whose outrageous idea it was to gather, at an 11th-century Viking castle, both claimants to the Gaza Strip. Where most peace negotiations use a process known as totalism (in which all subjects of dispute are discussed from the start), Rød-Larsen promoted a gradualism, in which trust is built by settling disagreements in stages.

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A consequence of the secrecy – the initiative was at first kept from the Norwegian, Israeli and American governments – was that the negotiators were not smooth diplomats or national leaders but obscure proxies who could be disowned if rumbled. The Palestinian delegation was led by Ahmed Qurie, a fiery financier, with Israel at first represented by two eccentric economics professors.

The dialogue is largely imagined, but Rogers has aggregated it from memoirs, documents and interviews, and no surviving participant has significantly questioned the account given in this absorbing, brainy, often funny play.

As Rød-Larsen, a commanding Toby Stephens cleverly keeps the audience guessing about the character’s exact balance of egotism and idealism, naivety and calculation. The cast is largely male, but Lydia Leonard, magnificent as Ann Boleyn in the RSC’s Wolf Hall, confirms her rare theatrical magnetism as Terje’s wife, Mona Juul, a Foreign Ministry official. Usually the only woman in the room, she has the men competing for her approbation, but her intelligence cannily directs their puppy-like attention to the cause of peace. Peter Polycarpou, a performer whose huge talents have been underrated, is tremendous as Qurie, precisely charting his character’s path from insecurity and suspicion to grudging trust and tactical nous.

The impact of plays changes depending on the time and place in which they are performed, and one exchange wins a show-stopping laugh from London audiences in Autumn 2017 that seems unlikely to have happened in New York. Hardline Israeli negotiator Uri Savir challenges the Palestinian delegation to “give me one country that voluntarily cedes national sovereignty like you are proposing we do”.

An opposite number replies that “the newly formed European Union comes to mind”, prompting from Savir the putdown: “Not those fucking pansies, I mean a real country.” There are also broader resonances: in the current Brexit talks, the UK is seeking a totalist approach, while the EU prefers gradualism. Unfortunately, the play doesn’t address what to do if two sides cannot even agree on the model.

Who will write the story of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels? The National should consider JT Rogers. As a Terje-like neutral outsider, he might just be the man for the job. 

“Oslo” transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1, from 2 October to 30 December