Since Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is one of our favourite plays, J.T. Rogers’s Oslo became an interesting option for a night out. It was our last night in London and the last night of a six week trip and the thought of skipping the play and getting a bit more sleep briefly came to mind. Luckily, it quickly left the mind!
Oslo tells the true story of how one young Norwegian couple – Terje Rød-Larsen, played by Toby Stephens, and Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard – planned and orchestrated top-secret, high-level meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.
This gripping play by J.T. Rogers, directed by Bartlett Sher, was awarded ‘Best Play’ at the 2017 Tony Awards and was winner of every ‘Best Play’ award on Broadway in 2017 including those given by New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards.
J.T. Rogers has lots of experience at dramatising foreign affairs, all his major plays deal with the subject: The Overwhelming (2006) dramatises the Rwandan genocide and Blood and Gifts (2010) explores the wars in Afghanistan. He has also written plays set in Spain, Germany and now Norway.
Oslo is the story of a peace process; it is almost wall to wall men in suits. But the events it elucidates are riveting. As is the dramatisation of the events for the play by Rogers. Improbably, the secret talks that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, the first agreement ever struck between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (remember the PLO?) and the state of Israel, were organised not through official channels but by a Norwegian academic and his diplomat wife. The negotiators were served waffles in a remote Norwegian house 🙂 The US was not told of the encounters. Yet later that year Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were shaking hands on the lawn of the White House. There were sobs of joyful surprise from witnesses as agreement was reached.
Sitting anonymously among the thousands of global dignitaries who had flocked to Washington to witness this historic event was Terje Rød-Larsen, the cultivated, softly spoken Norwegian diplomat who, with his wife Mona Juul, made it all possible by enabling the rival delegations to meet in secret to thrash out their differences.
The sobs provoked by watching this now are bitter: by the end of the decade the accord was in tatters.
Rogers’s play is not verbatim theatre but a reimagining. With fierce individual confrontations and high-powered comic eruptions. Rogers has fashioned an unexpected thriller out of the brave and inspired Palestinian and Israeli negotiators who came together to put aside decades of hostility and make peace.
Philip Arditti as Uri Savir is a chameleon Israeli negotiator who swivels from seductor to boa constrictor with a shimmy of his snake hips. He does provocative take-offs, not only of Henry Kissinger but also (jacket backwards over the head) Arafat.
Peter Polycarpou’s depiction of Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian finance minister sent by Arafat to make peace, admirably captures the conflicting emotions of enduring the pain of exile while seeking to wreak terrible vengeance on the Israeli occupiers.
Both of them have daughters called Maya.
At one Broadway performance, the entire 1,000-seat theatre was booked for the United Nations. They didn’t react to Philip Arditti’s Uri Savir impersonation of Arafat as an effeminate narcissist and a man whose vanity knew no bounds. Rogers suspects, they all either knew him or were terrified of being seen laughing at him. Even 13 years after Arafat’s death!
Bartlett Sher’s incisive production makes debate look like action. Which is part of Rogers’s point: in a peace process, talking is a deed – and may replace an act of war. Against the odds, the evening is truly theatrical – because it is essentially a backstage story. It makes most “news” look like mere window dressing.
The task facing the rival delegates when they first meet was a daunting one. For the Israelis, if the fact became known that they were talking to the PLO, the government would most likely fall. For the Palestinians, it would mean an assassin’s bullet.
Many of the players portrayed are no longer around to reflect on Rogers’s version of events. Rogers interviewed Terje Rød-Larsen at length, but spoke to only a few of the other participants: “I stalked the characters, through memoirs and TV interviews. But the lines on stage are all mine; there’s no verbatim. My rule, though, was that no one expresses views that they didn’t hold.”
Someone he apparently didn’t speak to was Yossi Beilin, who was a member of the Israeli delegation to the talks, and is disturbed that the playwright never contacted him even though Beilin’s character has a substantial role in the production. “No one bothered to call me, other than to tell me that there is such a play, and that if I’m ever in New York they’d be happy to invite me,” Beilin said. “I assume that the play has no connection to reality, but they tell me that it’s actually successful. it’s not clear to me why the playwright didn’t speak to those [involved] who are still alive.”
Joel Singer, who was the Israeli delegation’s legal adviser to the Oslo talks has seen the play on Broadway. “There’s very little resemblance to what you see on stage and what actually happened in Oslo. Even though they claim that the play is based on extensive research, there’s almost no link between what you see on stage and what really happened.”
Singer, along with other Israelis who’ve seen the play, found the Palestinian representatives were presented in an authentic manner, but didn’t find the Israeli representatives believable. Interesting cultural bias. Singer said, “All the Israeli representatives looked like cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Israeli characters are all distorted. It bothered me personally that they were using the names of people I know and attributing characteristics to them that they don’t have.”
None of the players were presented as their real-life versions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if they had, a three-hour play about politics, even the politics of a peace process, would have been far too boring. The real Terje Rød-Larsen is a quiet and patient man, who never seemed to be entirely comfortable with the rough-house atmosphere of the Middle East region, where disputes were often more likely to be resolved through rocks and rubber bullets than rational persuasion.
Uri Savir, who was deputed by Peres to run the Israeli side of the negotiations, was an urbane multi-linguist of an academic disposition, softly spoken and thoughtful when discussing regional issues.
Ahmed Qurei is reported to be a man of great personal charm, tolerant and good-humoured, which no doubt contributed to his appeal as a negotiator. His easy-going style has won him friendships over the years with his Israeli counterparts.
Yitzhak Rabin, the great Israeli warrior-turned-politician who agreed to make peace with Arafat, a man most Israelis, as one Israeli character in the play remarks, saw as being akin to “Hitler in his bunker”, was murdered by a Jewish extremist in November 1995 in revenge for signing the deal.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital in November 2004 remains a source of controversy among his PLO loyalists, many of whom believe he was poisoned by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
By the time Shimon Peres, the Nobel Prize-winning prime minister of Israel who helped resolve many of the more intangible issues, died more peacefully aged 93 in 2016, he had become one of the most accomplished statesmen of our age.
For all the quips and light-hearted banter, and occasionally over the top characters, Oslo is, at heart, a deeply emotional drama. When the Israelis finally strike a deal with the Palestinians during a telephone call to Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis, they think they can hear music playing in the background. In fact it is the battle-hardened veterans of the PLO sobbing at the prospect of being allowed to return to their homeland.
Ultimately, the play is an implicit tragedy about the failure of both sides to build a lasting peace on the basis of the painful concessions made during the Oslo negotiations. “Between our peoples lies a vast ocean,” says Ahmed Qurei, the finance minister for the PLO, in the play, just before the negotiations start. Twenty-five years on, that ocean seems as vast as ever.