Now, when I tell you that one of the best shows in town right now is on the Arab Israeli “peace process”, I appreciate you may not exactly be willing to take me at my word. After all, this isn’t exactly subject matter that’ll have you skipping with joy to the theatre. And certainly, I had my fears about Oslo too.
Would it be too dull? Would it be a political-drama-by-numbers, covering all the main points but lacking heart and human connection? And when I heard that it was centred around a Norwegian couple, yikes! I feared we’d be well into the realm of the White saviour complex.
Well, not only was I relieved that these pitfalls were largely avoided but, more than this, Oslo is a thrilling show that blends humour with tragedy, and the personal with the political, to not only inform but also to explore important themes about the sacrifice of ego for the greater good. For peace is fragile, dangerous to attempt, and often only fleeting. But it is always worth the risk.
At the centre of this drama is a high-ranking couple of Norwegian diplomats, Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) and Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens). Husband and wife with connections up to the eyeballs. After a trip of theirs to Gaza clashed with a period of rioting and an Intifada uprising, they decide to see if they can put into effect their theory on international diplomacy – that only the creation of personal relationships between opposing sides can effectively break down the mistrust and organised hostility that comes with institutionalised and formal talks.
And so, with international attention focused on the formal talks between the two sides in London and elsewhere, Mona and Terje start secret back channel negotiations between midranking officials from the PLO (Peter Polycarpou and Nabil Elouahabi) and Israeli professors and officials (Paul Herzberg, Thomas Arnold, and Philip Arditti) where the focus is on much as creating friendships as it is with hammering out the details on sensitive subjects such as Gaza, Jericho and Jerusalem.
These negotiations would become so ground breaking that they would result in Arafat and Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn. However, for the these talks to get that far, secrecy was everything. Nobody outside the four walls was allowed to know about these talks – not least of all the Americans. So, there’s plenty of hijinks to keep you drawn in as the talks battle to stay on track, but also battle to stay hidden.
But what draws you in is that this story is not about the big names and the glory of the staged scenes of peace; it is focused on the small sacrifices of people whose names are already largely forgotten but who found it in themselves to dig deep and make concessions that, if only for a while, showed what was possible.
Luckily the White Norwegians aren’t given an overdone personal drama to create the heart of the show. (I had feared their presence, after all). Instead, they are largely there to shift the drama on. The emotional heart of the play is instead with the Arabs and Israelis at the table.
The drama is fast and there’s a pacey drive to the piece that means it speeds through its three-hour running time rather effortlessly. There is righteous anger, of course, but this is handled skilfully by writer J.T. Rogers, and director Bartlett Sher. This could have been a real stumbling block – how to convey the extent of the injustice without it becoming an emotional ball and chain that holds the play back – but it is managed well.
But what I probably loved most of all though was the steady reveal of risk. The stakes are high and that is never hidden but, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more apparent just how far out on the ledge some of the participants have gone, what they have risked personally for the violence to stop.
That’s not to say that this is a completely flawless production.
Any play tackling the Arab Israeli conflict will have to shift quite a bit of exposition, and certainly the first ten to fifteen minutes can seem pretty dry (though I suppose I have to bear in mind I do come from a politics background so maybe my eyes glazed over a little too quickly here).
The accents were also a little rocky in places, most notably Toby Stephens’s Norwegian accent dropped, pretty much, within the first fifteen minutes. And I probably would have sharpened up the finale to really accentuate just how much has been lost. However, in the scale of what could have possibly gone wrong with this show, this is small fry.
To create an engaging play from such difficult subject matter is no mean feat. But, more than this, Oslo is remarkably affecting. Its short run at the NT is already sold out. However, the play is transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre in October for a longer run, and I would definitely recommend catching it there. You will not regret seeing this, not at all. It’s terrific.
National Theatre, London, to September 23, 2017
Tickets from £20.
All production images by Brinkhoff Mögenburg.