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Lydia Leonard interview - 'Oslo made me realise how little I knew about Israel and Palestine'
Fresh from its run on Broadway, JT Rogers Tony Award-winning play Oslo is poised to make its UK premiere at the National Theatre. It’s about the secret talks between Israel and Palestine in 1993, orchestrated on the sly by a Norwegian couple. Lydia Leonard plays Mona Juul, alongside Toby Stephens who plays her husband. We spoke to the actress about how the play first came about at a children’s football match, and taking the play straight to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End.
What is Oslo all about?
Oslo is about, broadly speaking, the Oslo Accords in 1993 which personally, I didn’t know that much about. It’s so brilliantly written by JT Rogers that it’s almost a history lesson in disguise. It sounds like it could be very dry but it isn’t, it’s a really fun, human story about this Norwegian couple. They’re a husband a wife who have created these back channel negotiations between Israel and Palestine, which is the closest thing to a peace settlement ever in the region.
Were you very knowledgeable on the subject before the play?
I realised when I got a job that I thought I knew a lot about what’s going on between Israel and Palestine, but to be honest I realised how little I really did know. It’s a very complicated situation, but I think the play will appeal to anyone who does or doesn’t know about the subject.
At a recent event, director Bartlett Sher said he met the couple during a football match?
Bart’s daughter was at school with the daughter of Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul. He’d get chatting to parents on the sidelines of kid’s football matches in New York, and discovered this man with incredible stories about the Middle East. Bartlett works regularly with JT [Rogers, playwright], so he put them both in touch. It was a hugely fortunate thing to happen when an opportunity presents itself like that.
You’re also the narrator of the piece, and it seems like a very funny role, too.
It’s a weird job being the narrator. You still have a relationship with the audience, and so the play breaks the fourth wall a lot. You see it very much through Mona’s eyes, and you’re brought in to see exactly what it was like as a co-conspirator.
The play enjoyed huge success on Broadway, will there be anything different about this London production?
What’s great is that it’s a totally new cast. Toby [Stephens, plays Rød-Larsen] and myself are a lot younger than the couple that played the parts over in New York. There might be a bit of a pressure to perform it with a similar enthusiasm, but it’ll be a different audience here and people will receive it differently. It’s really exciting. The fact it won the Tony Award is evident because it’s a really good play.
How are the rehearsals with the cast going?
I’m having a really great time. Bartlett Sher is really good at creating a great atmosphere in the room. Toby Stephens is an absolute joy and really fun. It’s a very fast-moving piece, there are about sixty-something scenes and they bound through. It’s obviously about the Middle East but it’s nice that the atmosphere isn’t too serious in the room.
You were last on stage in Little Eyolf at the Almeida in 2016. Are you glad to be back?
It was nice to have a bit of a break. We did Wolf Hall for nearly two years. I put in plenty of stage hours in that time. It’s really nice to be back on stage, it’s my favourite place to work.
The play opens at the National Theatre and then transfers straight to the West End, is that a good way of doing things?
It’s really cool. The National Theatre is such a great place to work, and then we have the longer run to a wider audience in the West End. It’s really brilliant.
If you had to sum up why someone should come and see Oslo, what would you say?
It’s a really gripping piece political thriller, or an intellectual thriller, that moves very fast. You’re taken into a bit of history you think you know about from a whole different angle. It’s fascinating stuff and, hopefully, really well performed.