You’d be forgiven for thinking that a 3-hour play about creation of The Oslo Accords might not be the most exciting. However, JT Rogers’ ‘intellectual thriller’, currently on at the National Theatre, proves to be an incredibly gripping and brilliantly written piece of drama.
The play is clearly meticulously researched, and there is no shortage of detail about the peace negotiations or what they contain. ‘Oslo’ appears first and foremost to be a historical play, all of its characters real people and all its events, real events. What Rogers manages to do, which is probably his most impressive feat, is marry the factual and the formal to the deeply personal. When Larsen (Tony Stephens), the Norwegian facilitator of these talks suggests a kind of talks where “people are talking to people” we see that this is a historical drama with real people and real personalities at the heart of it. ‘Oslo’ does a brilliant job of revealing the individual within the bigger picture, a bigger picture which really comes down to a small group of people really genuinely desperate to make peace.
There are some excellent performances. Lydia Leonard’s dry humour in her narration injects pace and keeps the play light and funny. Peter Polycarpou is equally strong as the finance minister of the PLO, both desperate for peace and the ability to return to his homeland but also wanting to wreak havoc on his perceived oppressors. Phillip Arditti is also brilliant, a young, exuberant Uri Savir, representing Israel’s Shimon Perez. Both Arditti and Polycarpou show the fiery passionate side to their characters, as well as the deeply emotional side of each individuals, with the two of them bonding over their daughters of the same name being one of the most touching moments of the play.
There are some minor issues with direction. Though the subject matter is obviously tense, there are a few too many moments of erupting into shouting. While the play is incredibly naturalistic, this essentially means lines that could have had a lot more impact are lost and instead a ‘high tension moment’ is aggressively signalled. There are also a series of video projections which feel unnecessary and even at moments confusing, as they take away from the clear naturalistic feeling of the play. While some of the clips and photos are more visceral and clearly emotional, it feels a little too obvious, trying to draw out a reaction from the audience, and rather different from the kind of emotion that is drawn out through the slow reveal of the characters and their individual suffering. In a world where we are so often desensitized by the bombardment of images and news, Rogers careful exposure of individual views and stakes in this peace process has much more of an emotional impact than some of these more unnecessary additions.
The play showcases a moment of optimism in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, one that feels very far away watching it now. The ending, then, feels a little spoon fed as Mona (Leonard) and Larsen (Stephens) discuss ‘whether or not they did the right thing’ and the impact that it made. I can’t help but feel ending on a moment of genuine optimism about their present might have made the play seem even more tragic given the hindsight that is shared as an audience.. But that said, the play itself is wonderful. It explores both the formal and personal detail of the creation of the Oslo accords, something which felt brilliantly momentous, really asking the audience how far we have to go and how different this landscape could look in another 25 years time.
Oslo is playing at the National Theatre until September 30 when it will transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenberg