Review: Oslo, National Theatre

“The Americans cannot stand it when others take the lead”

What does it take to get peace in the Middle East? Some determined Norwegians and a plate or two of tasty waffles apparently… At a leisurely three hours in length and set around the Oslo Peace Accords, JT Rogers’ Oslo might not on the face of it seem like theatrical gold but it won a Tony on Broadway and such was the confidence in this production that a West End run was booked in to follow its short engagement at the National before a ticket had even been sold.

And it is a confidence that has paid off handsomely. Bartlett Sher’s direction has an epic sweep to its depiction of world affairs but Rogers’ writing shines through its focus on the intimate detail, on the personal struggle, sacrifice and success of the individuals who managed to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock and work towards the unimaginable – a lasting peace. History has shown us the reality of that, something acknowledged in a coda here, but it is still thrilling to watch.

Those individuals were diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, a Norwegian husband and wife whose unconventional approach proved to be the thing that worked – opening up a back channel to allow negotiators from both sides to sidestep some of the obstacles to dealing in public and painstakingly start the process of moving towards some kind of genuine rapprochement, away from the media glare and the beady eye of the extremists who wear its failure as a badge.

Rogers thus turns reconstruction into something thrilling, and Sher casts it to the hilt to make sure it is delivered to perfection. In Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard, the contrasting officiousness and efficiency of Terje and Mona are beautifully played, both all too rarely appearing on our stages these days and in the latter case in particular, nailing this return. And Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti bounce wonderfully off each other as the Palestinian and Israeli representatives respectively, both impressing as they warily decide whether they could ever move closer to the other.

At a time of political upheaval for so many, Oslo serves as a telling reminder of the necessity of having people willing to step up to the plate, individuals willing to put themselves on the line for a greater cause than their own ambitions (not looking at anyone in the Conservative Party here). And though that same world might make it harder to believe, Rogers encourages us to not to relinquish what might seem impossible dreams.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval) 
Photos: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Booking until 23rd September, then transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre, from 2nd October to 30th December


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