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‘Oslo’ Review – “a gripping political thriller straight off broadway”

Harry Hatwell reviews the Tony-winning Lincoln Center production of 'Oslo' at its UK press night on London’s South Bank

On paper, J.T. Rogers’ Oslo sounds like the most bizarre of plays for the commercial stage. Centring on the Israeli-Arab conflict and the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, I thought it would be slow, and political in the worst of senses.

I was wrong. Bartlett Sher has directed the most fantastically attention-grabbing production I have seen at the National Theatre in a long while.

Those seeking a detailed exposition of the intricacies of the Peace Process and the contents of the Accords will be sourly disappointed. Rogers’ presents a deeply personal story set against the backdrop of the tale of two peoples – but it is only a backdrop.

The two protagonists are the relatively unknown sociologists from deepest Norway, who thought they had a new way to broker peace between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. From a castle in Oslo, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul – both played exquisitely by Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard – set about trying to bring together representatives from the Israeli government and the PLO, to sit face-to-face and negotiate.

At the time, it was the first time that any Israeli official had negotiated with members of the PLO. Negotiating with the terrorist organisation was illegal. This element of the historical fabric of the play adds an extra layer of excitement and drama to Oslo. The intimate set, designed by Michael Yeargan, really makes the audience feel involved in the secret talks.

Even though the script is somewhat confused by some lines directed straight to the audience, I still felt as if I was both watching and participating in the Oslo discussions.

Despite the high diplomacy and the political intrigue, Oslo offers a number of moments of great comedy. Sitting somewhere between Yes, Prime Minister and House of Cards, Geraldine Alexander, as the housekeeper and cook at the Oslo residence, offers great comic relief. The unique approach of Larsen and Juul forced the parties to approach each other as equals and friends when they were not at the negotiating table.

These scenes are full of jokes and gags, allowing us multidimensional views of Philips Arditti’s Uri Savir (Director-General of the Israeli foreign ministry) and Peter Polycarpou’s Ahmed Qurie (PLO Finance Minister).

The multi-faceted set – an almost palatial room with plain walls – features stunning projections from 59 Productions. When Lydia Leonard’s character brings the audience up to date with current events in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, she is surrounded by images of the incidences as they unfold. The effect is a theatrical experience
which is truly immersive.

The play begins with the Jerusalem skyline projected across the stage; Oslo does not just transport us from London’s South Bank to a castle outside Oslo, but also to Israel, and eventually the White House. As can be expected from a play of such complexity, and one which tries to err on the side of political caution, I found myself leaving the theatre with more questions than answers.

I can’t help but question Rogers’ motives in writing Larsen and Juul’s story. The end of the play sees the characters tell us where they are now, in 2017: Larsen seems to be defending his actions as the only effective way to beginning the peace process, while Juul appears to criticise this.

Everyone in the audience knew of the terrorist attack in July on Israeli border guards on the Temple Mount and the ensuing crisis; in light of this development, it felt uneasy for Stephens’ character to be so gushing in his self-praise. Oslo chronicles a process started in 1992. Peace is not forthcoming.

Oslo is at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October until 30 December.

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