Oslo – National Theatre

Toby Stephens in Oslo, National Theatre by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

When we look back at the last 100 years of world history, all you really see is battlefields and bombs. From the first total mechanised war to the modern day, our history seems to be the invention of new forms of death, of fear and an increasing inability to know who the villains really are. But behind all of the things that you think have shaped the world we know, there is one startling fact, that change didn’t really happen in any of these places of death. It germinates there, it is the trigger, but change and the tide of history that accompanies it, really happened in a succession of secret rooms, among a select group of privileged men (mostly men) sitting round a board table with the fate of their countries in their hands.

There is the Versailles Treaty of course at the end of the First World War, an ineffectual conclusion that only paused European hostilities; There was the Wannsee conference, dramatised so well by the BBC in 2001, which brought together the various German war leaders and administrators to chillingly agree the Final Solution; There was the Potsdam meeting with Stalin, Attlee and Truman at the end of World War Two, and in 1993 there was Oslo, the secret negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government that offered the first real possibility in 50 years of peace between the Palestinian and Israeli governments.

For lovers of political theatre, the autumn season has plenty to offer with the West End transfer of Ink opening next week, James Graham’s other new play Labour of Love opening for previews before the end of September, despite a rapid recasting, and this hotly anticipated production of J.T. Rogers’s Tony-award winning Oslo arriving from Broadway with a fresh cast for a brief showing at the National Theatre before it takes up residency at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the rest of the year.

The new season has definitely begun, and the National Theatre is bringing out its big hitters, with the incredible Follies opening to a slew of 5-star reviews and Ivo van Hove directing The Network with Bryan Cranston in November, Oslo is the latest of its big sell-out shows this autumn. Even with Press Night some days away, it’s already clear why America loved Rogers’s play, a fascinating insight into a secret negotiation process that started as a forum for economic cooperation but became the main channel for peace, unexpectedly put together by a Norwegian academic and his wife in the Foreign Ministry.

It’s 1993 and Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen develop a plan to aid the Middle East peace process that is floundering in Washington. With the wrong people at the table, too much distance between the principle players and officious American control, Mona and Terje secretly bring together representatives from the PLO with a couple of economics professors from Israel for unmonitored face-to-face discussions. Terje’s charm and Mona’s Foreign Ministry connections ensure progress is rapid, forcing both sides to see each other as people, putting their enmity aside for the chance to achieve something historic. But as more senior Israeli ministers engage in the process, the demands increase with both peace and secrecy coming under threat.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, Oslo has made a very easy transition to the expansive Lyttleton stage, giving a sense of the smallness of the people around a tiny table in a grand room making huge decisions. There may be greater intimacy when it transfers to the Harold Pinter, but there is something about the scale of what Juul and Rod-Larsen were attempting that fits this space so well. Sher ensures that the roundness of the characters, their foibles and frustrations, as well as their political views are not lost in the space, and the audience sees a surprisingly human story of a big political moment.

Political theatre is never easy to pitch, but Rogers has this just about right with narration throughout from Mona who talks to the audience, explains some of the events happening in the region as well as introducing the key players. Her guidance offers just enough context to those who know nothing about the conflict, supported by projected maps, photographs from the war zone, video footage and some ornamental designs to give a sense of venues changing from the negotiating room, to the Larsen’s flat, to a restaurant. The rapidity of this helps Sher create a sense of pace that bleeds scenes together and makes the 3-hour run time pass unnoticed.

Although this is a play about a major political event, it feels like a character piece and its strength lies in defining the unlikely collection of people it brings together. It was, we are told, Terje’s idea to create a sense of bonhomie where outside the negotiating room the men would talk only of families, drinks and food. And it is in these moments that the audience gets to know them as well, and as the need for narration fades, the humour, warmth and genuine desire to achieve a lasting settlement in each man becomes clearer. People who were once sworn enemies, finding a way forward becomes the play’s dramatic drive.

The question that hangs over it all, and remains delightfully unanswered, is why Mona and, particularly Terje, did this at all. We know that the idea for Oslo came when Rogers met Terje and became fascinated by his, now forgotten, role in this peace process, but Rogers leaves his motivation open to interpretation. Toby Stephens plays this ambiguity perfectly, channelling the mix of ego and desperation that seem to explain Terje’s investment in the business of other countries. Still boyishly handsome, Stephens utilises all the gentlemanly charm that Terje needs to keep everyone onside, smoothing every ripple as the ultimate genial host. But there is a darker undertone to Stephens’s performance, suggesting Terje ultimately wants to be known as the architect of peace in the Middle East which results in occasional outbursts of temper, as well as fear that his military guests might turn on him.

Less overtly ambitious is Lydia Leonard as Terje’s diplomat wife Mona who, unlike her husband, has an official role in the foreign policy of her country. Having previously played Anne Boleyn onstage in the RSC’s version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Leonard has plenty of experience of holding her own on a stage full of men and Oslo is no exception. A softer presence than her husband, Mona is a level-headed force throughout, tactfully navigating the explosive characters in the boardroom and thinking fast to solve unexpected problems. But she’s also carefully balancing a need to protect her career, and Leonard ensures we see that Mona is more than a competent administrator, but someone who’s also risking everything in the affairs of others.

With a large cast surrounding them, it would be easy for the key figures to blend into one another, but Rogers play deliberately gives real insight into the men around the table, and what begins as a series of shouting matches about various contractual sticking points, slowly evolves into growing friendship and believable camaraderie. Leading the Palestinian contingent is the excellent Peter Polycarpou as Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie desperate to establish the legitimacy of the PLO and make the territorial gains he needs. But, he is also full of a humour, enjoying Norwegian hospitality and finding unexpected commonalities with his enemies to which Polycarpou gives warmth and feeling, both charting shifts in Qurie’s opinions while demonstrating the appeal of his own character for others.

Philip Arditti as Israel’s Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, arrives half-way through the negotiations as the first senior figure to get involved. Initially he’s a pretty cool customer, unwilling to make concessions, but like Qurie, develops a genuine investment in the people and the outcome of the talks. Paul Herzberg and Thomas Arnold do well as the vital Israeli Professors unceremoniously cast aside by their military superiors and resenting their usurpation, while Nabil Elouahabi as Palestinian communist Hassan Asfour and Israeli lawyer Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan) add considerable texture when ideals meet cold hard process, turning their dreams of peace into practical reality.

At the end of Oslo as the characters explain to the audience what happened next, both politically and personally, and you’re left in no doubt that however long peace lasts, it is the decisions made in rooms by small groups of people that explain how history happens. So often, these hinge on the mixture of personalities brought together unexpectedly with a common will to enforce change. But, Rogers wants us to know that these processes are also fragile, that they depend on individuals to keep them on track, and once those people move aside, everything they’ve gained is once again up for grabs. Ultimately though even if the players change, the game remains the same and whether its terms of surrender or the cessation of war, decisions aren’t made on the battlefield but in the boardroom.

Oslo is at the National Theatre until 23 September and transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October – 30 December, tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 500 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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