BWW Review: OSLO, National Theatre
We need more waffles in diplomacy. Or, in other words, personal connections to bridge those vast divides. So believed the Norwegian couple who orchestrated secret peace talks in 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization - a slice of stranger-than-fiction history grippingly dramatised in JT Rogers' play, which deservedly won this year's Tony Award.
Terje Rod-Larsen, director of a research institute, and wife Mona Juul, a Norwegian Foreign Ministry official, have the radical idea of bringing individuals together in private to address differences in opinion, build trust, and work together on overcoming issues one at a time - rather than both sides making sweeping public demands in an intractable system that leaves no room for compromise.
Similarly, Rogers hones in on this small group at one pivotal moment, rather than following the dizzying sweep of Middle East politics. He does so with a peppy wit and lightness of touch that makes this a surprisingly humorous evening - while also building up audience understanding in order to earn real suspense and emotional heft in the closing stages.
Slickly supplied exposition gets us up to speed. The PLO is struggling financially, but because they're classified as a terrorist organisation, it's illegal for Israeli officials to meet with them; initially, Israel sends two economics professors instead. The Norwegian back channel is also hidden from the blundering Americans (who don't have Norway's crucial neutrality) and even, for a time, from Mona's boss.
Most of the action takes place in a manor house near Oslo, with negotiations inching forward over nine months; Gaza, Jericho, Jerusalem, mutual suspicion and the piling up of bodies lie between them. It's history viewed from behind the scenes, and director Bartlett Sher - who imports his excellent American production - has a sure handle on Rogers' tone: giddily surreal farce meets riveting political thriller.
Gradually, the participants begin to view each another differently. One admits he's "never met an Israeli face to face"; soon, they're bonding over Johnnie Walker Black, homemade waffles, insider jokes and high-wire imitations - and the fact that two men, locked in ideological battle, have daughters with the same name. Rogers' key point is that we mustn't see just one side of someone, but the whole person.
That delicate, discreet diplomacy is perhaps a lost art in this public internet age - much as those in Trump's America or Brexit-era Britain might long for this civilised approach to finding common ground. However, Rogers' direct-address postscript feels unnecessary, prompting the audience when already the question hangs in the air of whether this striving for (fragile) peace was worthwhile and holds lessons for us.
Alongside the negotiation process is the parallel push and pull of a marriage. Terje and Mona were both inspired by seeing two teens, Israeli and Palestinian, weapons drawn but palpably reluctant to engage, yet the husband and wife have very different approaches.
Terje is a swaggering, risk-taking maverick fuelled by well-meaning idealism. Though he proclaims this process isn't about him, the charge of "narcissistic dilettante" may have some merit, and the reliably charismatic Toby Stephens plays all those different notes with aplomb.
Lydia Leonard's consummate diplomat Mona, meanwhile, is keenly perceptive and always has the right words, in the right tone, to defuse tense situations - the composed woman amidst the hot-headed boys. It's easy to see why the negotiators barely tolerate Terje, but love Mona.
Yet Rogers refers briefly to a potentially fascinating conflict - Mona is risking her career by going rogue with Terje - that's never given room to develop. And though Leonard's compelling presence and welcome wry asides give Mona stature, it's Terje and the boys who have more active roles.
Highlights among a superb ensemble include: Howard Ward's exasperated Norwegian Foreign Minister, Peter Polycarpou's avuncular but shrewd Ahmed Qurie, Nabil Elouahabi's ardent communist, Geraldine Alexander as the winning housekeeper supplying those magical waffles, Yair Jonah Lotan's brusque lawyer, astutely unpicking woolly language, and a scene-stealing Philip Arditti as the volatile, debonair showman Uri Savir.
The daunting scale of Michael Yeargan's set juxtaposes these striving individuals with their monumental task, and the combination of Catherine Zuber's cool costuming and Donald Holder's chilly lighting paints Norway as a world of serene greys - in climate and, vitally, in outlook. The tentative détente reached one night amidst those snowy trees is a stirring theatrical moment.
Yeargan's design also emphasises the most important aspect: a door, left open at the end to shine a glimmer of light. When two people are willing to enter that room and extend a hand, "history begins to change".
Oslo at the National Theatre until 23 September, and then at the Harold Pinter Theatre 2 October-30 December - book tickets here
Watch an interview with Bartlett Sher and JT Rogers below!
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg