Benet Catty Productions

Oslo (WE 2017)

Nov 1, 2017

Harold Pinter Theatre

A play telling the story of how Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in secret in a hotel in a Norwegian forest in 1993 to negotiate a peace deal might not seem a promising subject for a Broadway smash. But Oslo has been the hit new play in New York this year and won every Best Play award there. Now – following a brief premiere run at the National Theatre – this smart, fast and funny political thriller has arrived in the West End.

JT Rogers’ terrific play chronicles the true story of how two Norwegian diplomats introduced and facilitated two Israelis and two Palestinians – crucially, without direct contact with their respective leaderships - to begin exploring a deal for peace. The conditions were that they’d negotiate in the room but outside it they’d sit, chat, eat waffles and communicate as human beings rather than representatives. Although not without difficulty this proves to be a lynchpin of what follows; indeed two of the rival negotiators, we are told in the epilogue, remain friends to this day. When official channels get involved, of course, things get even more complicated.

Although it’s a play in which people in suits talk in rooms, Oslo really grips. In one of several affecting anecdotes, one of the negotiators refers to eating olives with his father when he was younger. He hated olives, he says, but he did so in order to get close to his father. This is the essence of negotiation: swallowing what you wouldn’t normally tolerate in order to achieve something greater than your own needs. Everyone gets some of what they want, everyone loses some of what they need. Compromise is the essence of diplomacy but sacrifice is the by-product. And hope – even against all reason - is the key progenitor of diplomacy, a thought that the play ends on.

JT Rogers brings great skill to the condensing of complicated motivations and a panoply of characters and locations into three talky hours. It inevitably contains its fair share of lumpy exposition in which people tell each other things they already know: “The Berlin Wall has just come down!” shrieks one character in the first scene. But it’s not all politics. Rogers also gives lots of time and focus to the negotiators’ attempts to bond, variously with jokes (all funny) or drunken banter and impersonation. The many lighter moments counter-balance the seriousness of the subject they are focused on, for which many lives hang in the balance – not only their nations’ but their own.

Bartlett Sher’s staging of Oslo is much less dynamic than the subject or the writing. Save for the inevitable rear projections it contains no visual interest. Actors often walk on from the audience entrances, which is distracting (not least as the audience doors are so noisy) and rather pointless. There’s an odd bit of business with a door on wheels which appears in one early scene and then never again, giving the impression of having been imported from a different show. There is a propensity to magnify all moments of disagreement by having a character walk right up to another, point a finger and shout in their face. This is a play about people talking in rooms and trying to change the world: it doesn’t need extra bombast.

The actors who resist this kind of capital letter acting – the ever-brilliant Toby Stephens and, in the best performance of his career, Peter Polycarpou – create the most authenticity and interest. Philip Arditti brings tremendous charisma to the mix too.

Nothing is more likely to trigger hazard lights than to call a play “important”. But Oslo is about an important subject and, perhaps more relevantly in the times we live in, important in the way it shows how people can achieve great things if they listen to the counter argument and not to the allegiance of the person making it. In a time when intellect and empathy are no longer available in the White House and in several other political addresses closer to home, it is a salutary tale.

Oslo is a powerful piece of history and, for all the repeated references to the Norwegian cold, it is a play about warm humanity being pursued with burning passion.

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