Broadway doesn’t often play host to contemporary American dramatists who have something of global importance to say. A notable exception, way back in 1993, was Tony Kushner’s towering Angels in America, which returns to Broadway next year in the National Theatre’s recently acclaimed revival. It is heartening, therefore, to welcome JT Rogers’ recent Tony Award-winning Oslo, an epic factual thriller where the question isn’t whodunnit but “will they or won’t they do it?”
“They” are the Israelis and the Palestinians, and what’s being negotiated is the historic peace-process that took place in Oslo over a nine-month period in 1993, culminating in September of that year in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C. when PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook the hand of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The architects of this hitherto unthinkable event (and the play’s central protagonists) are Teje Rod- Larsen, a sociologist, and his wife Mona Juul, who works for the foreign ministry. As a sociological experiment, the idealistic, extremely intelligent Terje wants to see whether a political stalemate can be resolved through a subtle process of “gradualism” rather than dogged totalism. “My model,” he says, “is rooted not in the organisational, but the personal.”
To this end, he and his brilliantly diplomatic wife take a dangerous and potentially career-ruining plunge by initiating clandestine back-channel peace talks between Israel and the PLO, which climaxes in the historic albeit short-lived Oslo Accords. Unlike the usually abortive negotiations in which the Palestinians and the Israelis are incapable of anything approaching civility, Terje’s aim is to hold the talks on neutral ground, in strict privacy, behind locked doors, with no mediators present.
Personalising the talks by stripping the occasion of its familiar tensions and creating a relaxed, unthreatening environment leavened with waffles supplied by his excellent Swedish cook and all the Johnny Walker Black Label whiskey they can drink, Terje is hopeful that a satisfactory rapprochement can be achieved. Even the setting is informal. Terje and his wife’s spacious country pile, (strikingly suggested by Michael Yeargan’s uncluttered set) is 30 miles outside Oslo and surrounded by forests.
With secrecy the first item on this potentially explosive agenda, Israel’s initial representatives are a pair of disheveled, unassuming economics professors unlikely to draw attention to themselves. But after an awkward getting-to-know-you period, the PLO’s deeply suspicious finance minister, Ahmed Querei, demands a more high-profile presence and, with the arrival of Uri Savir, the deputy general of Israel’s foreign ministry, the talks become fruitful and even playful at times.
In one of the best, most humanising scenes in the play, Ahmed and Uri, while out walking in the forest one evening, begin to bond. They discover they have several things in common, most notably that their daughters are both called Maya. These personal connections and the attention to detail and character development breathe life into a situation whose eventual outcome is well known and, alas, ongoing. What could so easily have been a rather dry trawl through an intriguing but familiar piece of Middle East history emerges as a heartfelt human document in which the protagonists are as compelling as the situation.
Bartlett Sher, who directed the play on Broadway, keeps it moving at a nifty pace, making its three-hour running time seem half as long. There’s a kind of epic, Shakespearean grandeur to the staging, yet without loss of intimacy. It’s also extremely funny in parts, as when one of the characters does a caricatural impersonation of Arafat.
The all-English cast is flawless. Toby Stephens as the urbane, idealistic host Terje Rod-Larsen draws a fine line between manipulative self-importance, ruthlessness and being the butt of much send-up humour. Lydia Leonard as his efficient wife (who also serves as a narrator and scene-setter) is totally plausible as the cog that keeps the tricky and complex negotiations on track.
In the showiest role, Philip Arditti as Uri Savir projects a forceful ego, an intelligence and an unwavering commitment to his cause, qualities shared by Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurei, the PLO’s passionate finance minister. That these two men became friends even after the Accord collapsed is reflective of the improbable but short-lived miracle that occurred in 1993 – the very essence, in fact, of what this fine play is all about. What a tragedy there is no happy ending.
The production transfers from the Lyttelton to the Harold Pinter Theater from October to December.