Review - Oslo at the National Theatre

Will Longman
Will Longman

We're bogged down with constant talk of negotiations these days, which is inevitable - the biggest democratic decision for a generation will change all our lives. It's going to be tough, but nothing compared to what it took Israel and Palestine just to get sat around the same table.

The year is 1993, and diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the Israel and Palatine were taking place in New York. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation weren't invited, and Israeli state officials were forbidden by law to communicate with their Palestinian counterparts. It was an impossible situation with no clear solution.

Not for the Norwegians, though. Specifically, sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen and his wife, foreign ministry official Mona Juul. Rød-Larsen believed the way forward was to take a more personal approach. By having each side lay down each of their arguments, and working through them one-by-one, they would be more likely to reach a conclusion.  But an important part of this was promoting friendship between both parties, who were all expected to eat, drink and smoke together.

That's all well and good in theory, but how do you get two sides that have never seen eye to eye around the same table? With Juul's priceless Rolodex, the couple were able to orchestrate secret phone calls between the two organisations, something the Norway Foreign Ministry had no idea about until a few rounds of meetings had passed (foreign minister Johan Jørgen Holst was not best pleased).

Those meetings are fascinating affairs. Beyond the bashing out of political sticking points, there is something striking about seeing the passion in these talks. Yes, both sides have been wronged and it may be impossible to ever reach a fully-formed conclusion, but that is what they are both whole-heartedly striving for: an end to the killing of their peoples. It is hard to forget that these talks were literally about life and death. At certain moments, images flash of children wearing blood-stained clothes - a reminder that outside of this room people were losing their lives day by day.

It sounds heavy, and without a doubt it is, but arguably the best moments of Oslo are outside the negotiation room. In a regal guesthouse in the Norwegian capital, the group share stories and joke with one another. JT Rogers' witty jokes (superbly executed by an excellent cast) cut the tension and, given the Palestinians in question had never met a Jew before the first meeting, show how Larsen's idea to appeal to the personal really did work and they did genuinely become friends.

It's important to note, too, that you don't need an in-depth knowledge of the conflict. It's as much about the personal relations between the negotiators as it is about stopping the violent atrocities taking place in each country. If you aren't aware of the issues going in, and even if you are, you'll leave with a deeper understanding of what is going on, and why it's such a problem.

The production is littered with splendid performances, not least from the main negotiators. Peter Polycarpou is excellent as PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie, as is Nabil Elouahabi as his colleague Hassan. Some of the standout moments in the play come as they get to grips with the anxieties that come with meeting their "first Jew".  

Philip Arditti plays director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Uri Savir with a fierce suaveness, but is also very funny. Toby Stephens plays Rød-Larsen with an air of smugness as his masterplan comes off, but Lydia Leonard as wife Juul is able relatively le to keep him grounded. As narrator, Leonard keeps the story rolling and gives the piece an amusing voice, and is key to making the piece understandable for all. 

The piece plays out on a largely sparse set, with characters rolling different pieces of furniture around as we whiz around the world. Bartlett Sher's direction has some characters linger at the side of the stage, as giant projections of eruptions of violence are projected on blank walls serve as reminders of the risks everyone involved took to be there, but also the very reason they are taking them.

It's can be a difficult thing to do, make political play theatrically gripping, but that's exactly what this production achieves. Rogers' play does justice to a couple who genuinely managed to change the world for the better, by forging the closest deal to peace the region has ever seen. It's a powerful three-hours that will help us realise how important viewing your enemies as humans can really be.

Oslo is at the National Theatre until 23 September, and transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre in October. 

Oslo Tickets are available now. 

What the popular press said...

"Time may have exposed the fragility of the 1993 accord but the play emerges as an instructive lesson about the primacy of the personal in global affairs."
- Michael Billington, The Guardian (four stars)

"This is a serious, and a seriously good, play. Gripping is the word. Who would have thought that something that we think of as intrinsically dull, the peace negotiation process, could be like some sort of thriller?"
- Ann Treneman, The Times (five stars)

"...the keynote of this fine, humane play is hope."
- Sarah Hemming, Financial Times 

"American playwright JT Rogers has crafted an absorbing mix of historical reconstruction and political thriller, in which world events are viewed from an unfamiliar angle. "
- Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)

Links to reviews
The Guardian
The Times
Financial Times 
Evening Standard


Originally published on

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