Tuesday 12 September 2017


National Theatre, Lyttelton
7th September, 2017, matinee

*Please note that this was an early preview performance.

The Lincoln Center Theater production of J.T. Rogers’ play chronicling the Oslo Peace accords in 1993 was the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play earlier this year. Now playing a short run at the National before the West End, it’s easy to see why this play about what might be, to some, a dry topic has become a big hit. Its exploration of the intricate complexities of political negotiations and the practicalities of the human exchanges at the heart of them and their effects on global peace is gripping and often hilarious.

And what a surprise it was for me to like it so much when I sat in row D of the Lyttelton stalls before it started and thought: ‘I know next to nothing about the Middle East. Why have I come to see this?’ And for the first 10 minutes or so, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Bartlett Sher’s production is slyly simple. Michael Yeargan’s set is an ambassadorial room made up of no more than few pieces of furniture and some white walls. There is an air of stripped theatricality about it. The walls at the side look like theatre wing flats, and we see the door (with its metal structure that tells us it’s a part of a stage design) brought on and wheeled into position. The play starts (with no magisterial music or dramatic lighting changes) with Toby Stephens walking on stage preparing to begin. Soon enough, the play launches into mid-scene where charming couple Terje Rod-Larsen (Stephens) and his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) are having drinks with the Norwegian Foreign Secretary in a scene which frames most of act one in a flashback.

Soon enough, I thought it was going to be three hours of a House of Cards/ Stuff Happens crossover, with jokes aplenty about bureaucratic red tape and facile nods to current affairs. ‘Doesn’t Stephens look like Stephen Campbell Moore? What accent is he doing? Oh, there’s Peter Polycarpou. Look it’s the actor who played ‘Gary’ in that episode of Only Fools and Horses – what a demeaning role that must have been. OK let’s get on and pretend I’m watching the Oslo peace talks’. Well, how stupid of me to try to second guess the play.
Stephens and Leonard masterfully address the audience, introducing us to characters and settings, customs and relationships. Ben Brantley nailed it when he wrote that the role of Terje and Mona is to dramatically steer the play forward just as they did so politically with the negotiations. Oslo is a slow burner that draws you into the action. The space fluidly takes us from the negotiating room to outside of it, from Norway and Tunisia to the USA and Israel, from warzones to rooms with classy wallpaper thanks to 59 Productions’ projections and the company’s navigation.

Stephens conveys the mixture of gentle vanity and genuine good will as key mediator, wanting to stay truly impartial but also not being able to help himself in wanting some praise. But it is a perplexing role. I understand that Terje, the man himself, was present and a central part of the negotiations, but this does leave Rogers with the question of what to do with this man from a dramaturgical viewpoint. A background presence, he is sort of akin to a protagonist in a Marc Camoletti sex farce. As if Israel and Palestine are his two lovers he needs to keep in separate rooms, he occasionally comes across as bumbling dinner party host. This might be partly due to Stephens’ clipped accent and polished diplomacy. I’m not so much as criticising this aspect of the character and play, but am more bemused by it. Lydia Leonard’s Mona (who mostly leads the audience as well as controls Terje) becomes the character – along with Terje to be fair – that the two sides fall in love with. It’s such a strong performance.

Over the course of the play, whether through back channels, or via third party telephone calls, or over waffles, the ‘business’ at the heart of Oslo had me on the edge of my seat. It is a political thriller and we feel the weight of what’s at stake (especially thanks to Peter John Still’s sound). We hear that Palestine is over a vast ocean where great ships look like skippers. Whereas many have drowned or turned back going over that ocean, Qurie and Asfour (the Palestinians) want to be the first to succeed in making peace with Israel. Peter Polycarpou, Nabil Elouahabi and Jacob Krichefski lead the superb ensemble. I got the feeling that at any moment they could break out in hysterics over a joke or ferocious, spittle-firing anger over the slightest disagreement. Because of Rogers’ writing and under Sher’s assured direction, the jovial and the barbed are never far from each other in Oslo. There are elements of high comedy as well, which often sees characters working together against the odds. At one moment, German holidaymakers walk in on the secret talks leaving the two factions having to work together to pretend they’re the decorators. At another, they prank Terje by saying they’ve had enough and are walking out on the negotiations. They swap jokes whether at the expense of their wives or their cultures. There are also plenty of grin-inducing tactical idioms à la Frank Underwood, such as “the Prime Minister isn’t going to cut down a tree bearing fruit” and “sometimes we’re the pigeon and sometimes the statue”.

The whole cast (remarkably for what was an early preview) do much more than simply not allow the play to swamp them. They carve out memorable and individual characterisations, including Howard Ward’s blustered Norwegian Foreign Minister and Geraldine Alexander’s pleasing housekeeper and cook. As with many plays, such as The Westbridge and Elmina’s Kitchen, the nourishing qualities and cultural differences of food can make or break a relationship and heal feuds.

At the end of the play, Stephens breaks the fourth wall once more, coming down into the stalls and imploring us to look at the glimmer of light through the crack in the door. In a less accomplished piece of storytelling, the final message of hope about global politics could seem quite glib. But by that moment, I was so wrapped up in this story and these people, many of which whose friendships outlasted the actual peace deal, that I was whisked along by the play’s ambition and optimism in mankind to make peace. I walked out of the National thinking that, like Christopher Shinn’s Against, although Oslo doesn’t give a solution it’s not bashful about wanting to find one to the world’s political problems.

Oslo runs at the National Theatre until 23rd September and then transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2nd October to 30th December

Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens in J.T. Rogers' Oslo. Credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

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