Thursday, 14 September 2017

Theatre review: Oslo

Getting a quick transfer from a hit Broadway run to the West End, J.T. Rogers’ Oslo first spends a couple of weeks at the Lyttelton; Bartlett Sher’s production gets an all-new British cast to tell the behind-the-scenes story of historic Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It’s the early 1990s and Middle East peace talks are dominated by the Americans, who insist on a negotiating style that puts all demands on the table – it’s never yielded results, and attacks continue from both sides. Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens) believes he’s come up with a better model, based around smaller groups of negotiators getting to know each other as people, and chipping away slowly at concessions. Terje’s wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) works at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and helps set up a back-channel between senior Israelis and PLO members, behind the Americans’ backs.

Over several months, Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou) meets with increasingly senior members of the Israeli government in a castle outside Oslo, in weekends hosted by Terje and Mona, and progress actually starts being made.


Rogers’ immediately obvious achievement is how entertaining he’s made an unpromising subject. The Middle East is of course an endlessly complicated matter with passionate arguments on all sides, but its complexity does mean it’s hard to summarise in a way that fits into a relatable story. Rogers’ solution is the same as Rød-Larsen’s, to take things down to the personal level and introduce us to people, not ideologies. The second act does eventually take us to the negotiating table but more time is spent in the drawing room outside it, where the diplomats follow Terje’s rule to leave politics to one side and get to know each other as friends.


This is where the heart of the play is, as well as much of the comedy that’s one of its most notable features. From the awkwardness between the enemies trying to find a middle ground, to the nervousness over the fact that the whole event is being kept secret from numerous interested parties, to the jokes the delegates tell to try and break the ice, Oslo finds a lot of opportunities for humour in an unlikely setting.


There’s also the ridiculousness of some of the senior politicians trying to distance themselves from the talks while also taking credit if they go right, chief among them Howard Ward’s Foreign Minister and Paul Herzberg’s rambling Shimon Peres. And it’s interesting to see an American play tackle that nation’s fixation with being the final arbiter of international events, whether they’re actually helping or not. Philip Arditti brings a different dynamic to the stage once his flash Israeli government official Uri Savir joins the talks, and his unlikely friendship with Qurie becomes one of the main arcs of the play.


Michael Yeargan’s imposing set is a large room that’s gradually slotted into place by the cast as the story progresses, and the play similarly builds from an energetically comic start into something more intricate and emotionally rewarding. It’s down to Leonard to provide an anchor to all the emotion and energy flying around her; Mona is very much the real brains of her husband’s operation, and unusually the other characters not only realise this but comment on it often (the diplomats don’t really seem to like Terje much.) At over three hours Oslo could have been more streamlined – the time does fly but it’s still a long evening at the end of it (also, can someone please buy the National a stopwatch that actually records running times correctly?) But it’s the kind of play that both entertains and sticks with you; and despite Stephens and Leonard getting star billing at the curtain call, the biggest audience cheer was for Polycarpou and Arditti, showing where the heart of the story really lies.

Oslo by J.T. Rogers is booking until the 23rd of September at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton; then from the 2nd of October to the 30th of December at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

No comments:

Post a Comment