Tag Archives: Bartlett Sher

My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


To Kill a Mockingbird – Gielgud Theatre

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gielgud Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

Another Covid casualty now revived, Aaron Sorkin’s much anticipated production of To Kill a Mockingbird which opened on Broadway in 2018 may have had to exchange original British lead Rhys Ifans for the equally impressive Rafe Spall, but otherwise emerges relatively unscathed from its two year delay. At almost three hours, it is a long night but one that largely captures the moral, political and community complexities that have made Harper Lee’s novel a schoolchild favourite. Naturally, Sorkin’s adaptation is at its best in the tense courtroom scenes that pit an innocent man against a very crooked system, even if elsewhere the show tips into twee.

Sorkin, of course, is especially associated with those courtroom scenes and intellectually dense rat-a-tat dialogue that has made him a master of confrontation between smart, largely middle class, people fighting against organisational corruption and injustice. From the excellent A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise vs the US Marines), to Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain vs the FBI), The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Eddie Redmayne vs the police) to TV series like The Newsroom (Jeff Daniels vs the US Media and Government). Sorkin has made a career from the David against Goliath plights of ordinary citizens pitted against Establishment systems.

To Kill a Mockingbird is, then, a natural fit for the writer which, for the most part, Sorkin takes advantage of, showcasing the racial and political divisions in a small town that result in social stigma and recrimination. But this is not the first version of the novel to grace the stage and a 2015 production starring Robert Sean Leonard in the title role transferred from Regent’s Park to the Barbican, providing a benchmark against which this latest production is found slightly wanting. And although it is not always reasonable to compare, judging each on its own terms, exploring the story treatments and staging decisions across different approaches can explain how these support or hinder the development of the plot and the sometimes troublesome translation from page to stage.

Sorkin’s production is centered on three characters sharing narrator duties. Scout, Harper Lee’s original storyteller, Jem her older brother and Dill the friend they meet only for a summer. And for Sorkin this serves a couple of distinct purposes; first it offers different perspectives on the same event and, in theory at least, presents the audience with three ways into this story and its wider effects on the Finch family who each react and respond according to their age and involvement in the community. Second, structurally within the play it solves some directorial challenges in staging the story by reducing the burden on a single actor to carry all the activities as well as smoothing the transitions for characters appearing in subsequent scenes.

But this is also a place where Sorkin’s version struggles to find independence between different narrative voices, so in lifting text from the novel’s single point of view and distributing it to three people, they still speak as though they are the same person and not in a way that adds to the drama. Instead, Scout, Jem and Dill are mostly in harmony, commenting on events and guiding the audience from scene to scene with very little reflection on how their own perspectives should actually differ. And while Sorkin may draw them out through dramatic exchanges in conversation with other characters, that distinction in viewpoint and understanding isn’t brought through into their narrator duties. It feels like a missed opportunity to better explore authorial voice and the contradictions and differences in the priorities of children of various ages – most notably perhaps that Jem would challenge Atticus more while Scout still sees him as an unblenched hero.

As a theatrical device, single and multiple narrators are very common and, as seen recently with Under Milk Wood and Our Town, it can be an effective means of creating the bustle of larger communities as well as offering a wistful tone that uses language to conjure an imagined scene which the audience must suspend their disbelief to see. Here, though, it has a slightly alienating quality, pulling the viewer in and out of the story to add context or speed through time. And across three hours it is a device that begins to wear thin, a Jackanory retelling speaking down to the audience with endless explanations that contrast sharply with the dramatic tension and the more engaging approach to scene writing where Sorkin’s dialogue flies and jabs as we have come to expect. The balance has fallen too far into a novelistic telling rather than a theatrical staging which does sap the energy.

Timothy Sheader’s approach for Regent’s Park and the Barbican had a similar problem, using multiple narrators to convey the story in which approaches to reading the text were variable, creating a similar issue with the tone in which scenic and contextual information was conveyed. Sorkin may have reduced the number of narrators but this new version still doesn’t strike the right balance between omniscient author and dramatically-staged scenes.

Courtroom fireworks are what Sorkin does best and his version of To Kill a Mockingbird excels in the strength and potency of these exchanges, distilling the novel’s concern with social justice but also Sorkin’s own interest in the specificity of legal arguments and the rhetorical theatricality of their presentation. The white saviour construct feels more dubious than it did even in 2015, but Sorkin’s management of witness testimony and cross-examination, the presentation of evidence and skill of lawyers to construct, twist and persuade through argument is exceptionally well managed.

Sorkin too has a firm grasp of the shape and careful utilisation of drama across these dialogue-heavy interactions and writes slow crescendos particularly brilliantly as combinations of information gain their own momentum. Employing staggered turning points, dramatic defeats, cliff-hangers and thundering attacks, Sorkin has a masterful control over the unfolding courthouse scenes, maintaining anticipation and interest throughout as though unfolding military strategies in which there is much to grip an audience as the contenders effectively draw battle lines.

The questioning of the two key prosecution witnesses – Bob and Mayella Ewell – is particularly effective as Sorkin’s Atticus lays traps, provokes reactions and, as all true mavericks should, pushes at the boundaries of appropriate conduct to get to the truth. These sections prove crucial for the audience, a chance to see through the mendacity of the accusers but also for Sorkin to showcase the failures in legal process and deep-rooted community bigotry that will prevail regardless. That the writer is able to so clearly delineate these closely integrated subtexts is fascinating and well achieved, leaving the audience to wonder what to do when the law fails and justice is compromised.

Sheader’s production was perhaps less explosive but gave the courtroom scenes a world-weary fatalism that was quite different to Sorkin’s approach, though equally valid. A more muted style with a strong moral belief in doing the right thing for the sake of doing it, the Regent’s Park / Barbican show may have had a different courtroom dynamic but these are scenes that, across the two productions, are clearly the easiest to stage and stage well.

Running at the Gielgud Theatre, Bartlett Sher’s staging is a little cumbersome, requiring the wheeling on and off of bits of set including court seats, doorways and furniture to manage the many quick-fire changes of location. It does tend to slow the action – potentially necessitating even more narration to cover the resets – as we wait for Atticus’s house to rise up from the floor so the many scenes on the porch and inside can take place. Cutting between the courtroom and the Finch home becomes clunky as the pace of the story quickens in the second Act with the effort and sound of set being trundled into place and back again becoming a distraction.

Jon Bauser’s approach for Regent’s Park and the Barbican used chalk lines to delineate the town of Maycomb which became increasingly eroded and blurred by the ensemble (who were permanently on stage) as they stepped into scenes. Its very simplicity made it all the more powerful, eschewing the need for elaborate scenery that Sher’s production gets bogged down with, and both dramatically and practically was all the better for it.

Rafe Spall is, however, an excellent Finch, a man who believes wholeheartedly in goodness and decency to all, a virtue he tries to instill in his children. Sorkin deliberately toys with the presentation of Atticus across the production, placing a silent, remote and thoughtful figure on stage at first and, seen through the eyes of his daughter at least, a quietly heroic icon whose admirable decency and unflappable honesty and integrity are something that Spall captures exactly. Yet, as events take their sadly inevitable course, Sorkin asks questions about Atticus as a father and community member that suggest failings in his unbiased liberality and Spall investigates the possibility that Atticus must face himself in the aftermath of the trial, exploring whether there is systemic prejudice in his own behaviour which is so ingrained as to go almost unnoticed. Is fighting in the Courtroom enough and should Atticus be braver in taking a stand in other areas of his life where the rules of engagement are less clear?

Gwyneth Keyworth plays Scout as notably older than the six-year-old of the book and here seems around twice that. Still a tomboy eager to learn and ask questions, Keyworth’s very likeable performance is the heart of the piece, the innocence of Scout an important contrast with the poisonous attitudes of the Maycomb townspeople. Harry Reading has a little less to work with as Jem but gives a sense of a boy slightly closer to the adult world than his sister and far more conscious of their failings while David Moorst’s Dill probably plays as the youngest of the three in which Moorst has some nicely timed comic moments. They don’t really make the narrative duties decidedly their own but that’s a failing of the script rather than the performances.

Among the adults, Patrick O’Kane is particularly notable as the noxious Bob Ewell, a man with an imposing presence and dark soul whose viciousness seems to inspire loyalty for a time while Poppy Lee Friar is very good as the fragile Mayella whose brittle, cowed surface still brings a shocking desire for self-protection over decent humanity. Pamela Nomvete adds real gravitas as Calpurnia whose relationship with Atticus proves crucial to the re-examination that Sorkin brings to the final section of the play while Jude Owusu is full of dignity as the bewildered Tom.

There is much to admire in Sorkin’s writing and in the development of some complex character studies that try to get under the surface of the novel’s adult characters and the deeply ingrained prejudice of this Alabama town. That people can become so enmeshed in lies and suspicions that their only option is not only to go on with them but to cling even tighter feels pertinent, and while the staging and narrative structure are too heavy-handed, Sorkin has much to say about the broken relationship between integrity and justice.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Gielgud Theatre until 13 August with tickets from £27.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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.


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