Oslo review – the political gets personal as tense peace talks are given epic sweep

Lyttelton, London
In JT Rogers’ engrossing play on a historic moment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1993, we are reminded that diplomacy requires duplicity

JT Rogers is an American dramatist fascinated by global issues. In The Overwhelming (2006), he dealt with the Rwandan genocide and in Blood and Gifts (2010) with western attitudes to Afghanistan. Now in this new Tony award-winning play, which shortly moves into the West End, he tackles a historic moment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Even if, as Jonathan Freedland has pointed out, the play is a period piece, it is an engrossing reminder of a time when a negotiated settlement seemed a practical possibility.

Like our own David Edgar, Rogers is a dramatist who delights in process: in showing how things happened as well as why. In this case he follows the success of a Norwegian sociologist, Terje Rød-Larsen, and his foreign ministry wife, Mona Juul, in creating back-channel meetings in 1993 between Israeli and Palestinian representatives.

The meetings are clandestine, danger-fraught but cautiously productive. Eventually, however, Ahmed Qurei, finance minister for the PLO, demands to meet an opposite number of equal status and it is only when he is confronted by Uri Savir, deputy general of the Israeli foreign ministry, that the talks really take off. The result is a historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in a ceremony at the White House.

Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul and Toby Stephens as Terje Rød-Larsen in Oslo.
The drama lies in the detail … Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul and Toby Stephens as Terje Rød-Larsen in Oslo. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It may all have happened long ago, but Rogers successfully immerses us in the crises of the particular moment. Above all, he reminds of the validity of Larsen’s belief that the key to fruitful diplomacy lies in establishing human connections. Much of the action takes place in the drawing-room beyond the negotiating chamber, where official attitudes are relaxed, tempers occasionally fly but a Palestinian communist and an Israeli economist can join forces in rhapsodising over a Norwegian cook’s waffles. But Rogers also makes brutally clear the duplicity needed to bring the two sides together. At one point, Larsen lies through his teeth, and risks his wife’s future, by swearing to the Palestinians that he has an assurance that the Israelis will upgrade their delegation.

This is a play where the drama lies in the detail. However there came a point, especially when the Israelis raised 200 questions as to what would happen if they ceded control of Jericho, when my head started to spin with information overload.

Juul’s final query about whether she and her husband were right to act as they did also raises big issues I’d like to have heard fully debated. But, by re-creating the day-to-day toil and trauma of the Israeli-Palestinian meetings, Rogers asks whether gradualism achieves more in diplomacy than an unyielding totalism.

Although Bartlett Sher’s production has an epic sweep, it rightly puts the emphasis on the individuals involved. Toby Stephens brings out the vanity and self-regard behind Larsen’s idealism, while Lydia Leonard as Juul seems a model of practical wisdom.

Big issues … Peter Polycarpou, Thomas Arnold, Nabil Elouahabi and Paul Herzberg in Oslo.
Big issues … Peter Polycarpou, Thomas Arnold, Nabil Elouahabi and Paul Herzberg in Oslo. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurei and Philip Arditti as Uri Savir brilliantly suggest men of sizeable ego and seeming intransigence who yet manage to achieve a genuine human connection and there is good support from Howard Ward as a raging Norwegian politician and Geraldine Alexander as a coveted cook. Time may have exposed the fragility of the 1993 accord but the play emerges as an instructive lesson about the primacy of the personal in global affairs.

• At the National’s Lyttelton theatre, London, until 23 September. Box office: 020-7452 3000. Then at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, from 30 September. Box office: 0844 871 7627.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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