Oslo is another of those plays that I didn’t really think I’d like, but then the good reviews meant that my curiosity got the better of me. I seem to be seeing a lot of plays recently about late twentieth and early twenty-first century history, and this is another to add to the list.
Written by J. T. Rogers, Oslo premiered in 2016 in New York before transferring to the National Theatre and then to the Harold Pinter. It’s about the peace talks that took place between the Israeli state and Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1990s, arranged secretly and unofficially by a diplomat and her academic husband.
The topic sounded extremely dry, but I found it to be incredibly gripping, as the tense talks took on the atmosphere of a thriller. There are strong performances from Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurei and Philip Arditti as Uri Savir, and, holding it all together, the Norwegian husband and wife team: Toby Stephens as Terje Rød-Larsen and Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul. The nature of the subject matter means that the play is very much male-dominated, but Leonard’s character narrates which restores a little of the balance.
Not having any prior knowledge of the topic, I nevertheless found the play easy enough to follow,perhaps because more than anything it was about people: the people on opposite sides of a divide who came together and managed to forge an agreement, leading to a historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993 at the White House. The two sides don’t always get on – there’s an extremely tense moment when the Israeli leader is made fun of – but there is also genuine cameraderie.
I know enough to know that the peace forged by these talks eventually fell apart, but that doesn’t lessen the achievement of everyone involved in the Oslo accords, and this play is a fascinating record of them.