Here’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”
The fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?
But that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.
And they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.
Writer J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.
Because this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.
There was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.
The roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.
Even though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.
If Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!
Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg