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Oslo - In the Heart of London
Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to attend The 62nd Annual Drama Desk Awards in New York City - widely regarded as the second most important night of the Broadway Awards Season behind the Tony Awards, which will take place this coming Sunday, 11 June at Radio City Music Hall. One of the most coveted trophies awarded on Sunday was for "Outstanding Play" and J.T. Rogers' epic, political drama Oslo saw off some strong competition from the likes of Paula Vogel's Indecent and Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat, among others, to come out on top. Moments later, I caught up with Mr. Rogers to talk about the opportunity of showcasing this all-important story about the 1993 Oslo Accords and Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Broadway stage:
"Well, in short, it’s extraordinary. It’s hard to put words to it," he exclaimed. "Living playwrights in New York rarely get Broadway shows and maybe that’s changing now, which would be extraordinary, but certainly not at the [Vivian] Beaumont – which is the great, big space at Lincoln Center Theater. And I grew up going to that theatre my whole life, so that’s been extraordinary."
When questioned about the importance of transferring his play to the National Theatre, where it will run from 5 to 23 September 2017, and beyond into the West End, playing the Harold Pinter Theatre from 30 September to 30 December 2017, he added:
"You know, the National Theatre is who discovered me, as it were, and this is my third time coming back. I came to the stage door two weeks ago for casting and the staff said: “Oh, we’ve been waiting for you to come back.” I said: “Oh my God! I’m going to cry!” – and I know it’s not good form in England to cry at such things – but it was incredible. And I’ve never been to the West End! It’s hard to put into words just how extraordinary this is."
"Extraordinary" might indeed be the correct word, as it is very rare for a production, hosted at the National Theatre, to already have a West End transfer secured, long before the first preview has even taken place:
"In fact, early on I kept saying: “So, they’re selling the West End tickets already???”… “Yeah, yeah, yeah”… “Already???!!!” (Laughs)... You can be an extraordinary writer and have an incredibly well-received play at the Soho Playhouse in London or Playwrights Horizons here [in New York] and you get four or six weeks, if you’re fortunate, in a 200 or a 90-seat house and that’s amazing. So the knowledge that the play is going to be running for four or five months, it takes a while to get used to it. But it’s a good problem to have!"
Last autumn I had the opportunity to speak to Tony winner Jefferson Mays, who is currently nominated for a Tony Award for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play" for his efforts as Terje Rød-Larsen in the Broadway production. I was keen to find out more about the play itself and how it related to the current state of affairs of the world today.
"It’s a history play about the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 which unfolded and resulted in the signing of the accords in the space of nine short months," Jefferson explains. "It was the first time that the Israelis and Palestinians met in the backchannel of Oslo to work towards the beginnings of peace in the Middle East. A declaration of principles. It was facilitated by a Norwegian Professor of Sociology Terje Rød-Larsen – I play him and Jennifer Ehle plays Mona Larson, his wife, who is in the Norwegian Foreign Service. Currently she’s ambassador to the Court of St James. It’s simply a play about these implacable enemies coming into a room and getting to know each other, drinking together, eating together, going for walks in the woods together, fighting, laughing, getting drunk and establishing these very complicated relationships which ultimately turn into long-lasting friendships in their efforts to bring peace. It’s extraordinary to be working on it because, not only is it a fascinating part of history, but we live in this fragmented age where it seems that a Democrat and a Republican cannot get in a room together and break through the gridlock that is government these days. I think this is a useful reminder and lesson not just about the Middle East but also about America itself."
This Sunday, Oslo is nominated for the Tony Award for "Best Play" and again faces fierce competition like the runaway smash hit A Doll's House, Part 2, but the crowning jewel of the Broadway Awards Season may well be in its sights. So why exactly is this political thriller making headlines over the pond and garnering such critical acclaim?
Although the majority of the set and costumes in Oslo are grey, the story unfolding on the stage is anything but. If truth be told, I love to stay clear of politics – both during dinner party conversations and at the theatre – but consider me converted thanks to this importantly accessible and well-balanced drama that compresses the overwhelmingly complicated intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East into almost three hours of unmissable theatre.
J.T. Rogers has written a piece which utilises a handful of key figures, who took part in the negotiations, and expresses in his own words how the seemingly impossible came to pass. Our accompanying guides down the long and winding road - the aforementioned Tony winners Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle as Norwegian couple Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul – are the catalysts and instigators of the accords and these two astonishing actors frequently break the fourth wall in an effort to bring us up to speed on the exposition. I wouldn’t want to claim that Rogers has created an incarnation of “Conflict in the Middle East for Dummies,” however, I was admittedly grateful for Terje and Mona’s interjections. The subject matter is so dense and in this respect, the playwright encourages us to stay afloat and digest the necessary ingredients.
Terje’s notion of gradualism – “rooted not in the organizational but the personal” – stand in direct contrast to the failing peace talks in Washington. He states: “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.” And off we go… Indeed, perhaps some of the most memorable moments of the play occur when the conflicting political ideals of the characters are stripped away and universally human interests are embraced. Israelis and Palestinians sharing a fondness together for Norwegian waffles is a picture that will be etched in my mind for years to come.
The gifted ensemble of actors – some playing multiple roles – are complimented in the Broadway production by large projections of archive news footage, both historic and harrowing. With minimal furniture and set pieces, the projections transport us from a snowy wood in Oslo to the Rose Garden of The White House in the blink of an eye and even though, the Vivian Beaumont’s stage is spacious, the blocking of the scenes from within the negotiating room still feel claustrophobic enough, as if we were flies on the wall, privileged to be witnessing history being made before us.
If you’ve always thought that politics wasn’t your thing, Oslo might just be the greatest step you could take to broadening your horizons thanks to its crucially accessible nature.
Oslo Tickets are on sale now!