September, 1993. The world’s eyes upon them, the leaders of Israel and Palestine shake hands on the lawn of The White House. It is this iconic scene that provides the backdrop for J.T. Rogers’ latest play Oslo, directed by Bartlett Sher. The play explores the events leading up to this moment, following the unprecedented secret negotiations that would culminate with the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 2017, this acclaimed production is an intense political thriller, charting the story of a handful of extraordinary people who risked everything for peace.
The Oslo Peace Accords were a set of agreements between the state of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, acknowledging the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. In theory, the treaty would lead to the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Negotiations were conducted in secret in Oslo, Norway, organised and carefully orchestrated by Norwegian diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul.
Despite its serious subject matter, ‘Oslo’ makes for gripping theatre, lending itself surprisingly well to the stage. So politically relevant in today’s world, its timely reminders ensure its poignancy is not lost on its audience who, for the play’s duration, are on the very edge of their seats. So immensely powerful we, despite knowing the outcome of such negotiations, are filled with a nervous uncertainty regarding how the play will end; it feels as though these events are unfolding for the first time, as though the play itself has a bearing on the future of these two nations.
Excellently cast, the play’s ensemble provide truly engaging performances, fully immersing the audience in the heat of the moment. Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard excel as Terje Rød-Larsen and wife Mona Juul. Stephens’ Larsen is witty and flamboyant, a source of much of the play’s humour. His neatly crafted approach to the character is magnificent, and he delivers beautifully. Leonard’s cool-headed Juul, on the other hand, is a picture of infinite grace and composure, distinguishing her from the male characters. Her occasional narrative, subtly woven into the play, punctuates the dialogue, revealing to the audience details necessary to plot. The two complement each other perfectly, expertly demonstrating the quiet heroics of the diplomats. Philip Arditti and Peter Polycarpou are equally brilliant as the colourful Uri Savir (Israeli negotiator), and Ahmed Qurei (PLO finance minister), Polycarpou’s performance quite deservedly resulting in his WhatsOnStage nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The set – one large, rather grand room – remains constant for the play’s duration, but the smooth transition of props and clever use of lighting alters its appearance throughout, allowing the audience to witness the progression of the peace talks. The play is interspersed with footage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict projected onto the back wall of the set, holding a candle to the brutal reality upon which the play hinges.
Bartlett Sher‘s masterful direction here is a work of genius; the play has been meticulously choreographed, enhancing the power and intensity of J.T. Rogers‘ script, in which the playwright deftly offers an intimate re-imagining of proceedings. This truly is an astounding piece of theatre, its honest storytelling conveying the bitter truths of mankind’s struggle for peace, whilst serving as a celebration of hope, raising a toast to the possibility of a brighter future. A thrilling comedy about diplomacy, hope is a keynote of this play; it seeps through the cracks, just when all hope seems lost.
The closing scene of the play was perhaps the most moving of any I have seen on stage. The cast gathered together in a powerful display of unity and, one by one, took turns in relating an example of conflict between Israel and Palestine that occurred in the direct wake of the Oslo Peace Accords, showing just how quickly agreements were shattered by further bloodshed. It comes as no surprise, then, that this treaty did not result in a lasting peace. However, as Stephens implies in his closing speech, such a treaty served as a precedent, one that encourages us to focus on, not where we are, but how far we have come, and it’s such hope that propels us forward.