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Oslo review at National Theatre, London – ‘intelligent and intricate’

Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard in Oslo at National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard in Oslo at National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

For a play that chiefly consists of men in suits sitting around tables smoking and talking, JT Rogers’ Oslo is gripping stuff.

The Tony award-winning play shows how Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul, and her husband the social scientist Terje Rod-Larsen, were able to initiate a series of back-channel peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These talks formed the basis of the 1993 Oslo Accords, a moment of hope when, for a brief time at least, peace seemed possible.

Mona and Terje made progress where others had not, firstly by getting these high level officials into a room together and then, more significantly, by getting both parties to view each other as human beings. They encouraged cooperation and respect, carefully diffused tension and, whenever the process threatened to go off the rails, they returned things to a human level.

The play pulls off a similar trick. Three hours long and fact-packed, Rogers’ scrupulously researched work has a remarkable lightness of touch. It’s witty, nimble and full of pleasing detail. The men bond over the deliciousness of the waffles cooked by Terje and Mona’s housekeeper, they tell dubious jokes about rabbis and Hamas; at one point they impersonate Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. This is a play in which small gestures matter, where a handshake or a friendly slap on the shoulder become hugely politically significant, not to mention dramatically satisfying. Rifts are bridged as friendships are forged.

Opening at the National ahead of West End transfer, Bartlett Sher’s production features a tight ensemble cast. Toby Stephens anchors the play as the fastidious Terje, combing a dash of arrogance with a sense of integrity, while Lydia Leonard, as Mona, is similarly superb. As the play’s narrator, she balances out a piece laden with men.

There’s a high level of detail to all the performances of those playing the negotiators with Philip Arditti bringing an unexpected dash of rock star swagger to Israel’s Uri Savir, the director general of the Foreign Ministry.

The colour palette of the production is one of shades of grey; a canvas onto which news footage is projected, providing historical context as well as a reminder of what’s at stake, the lives that will be affected by the success, or otherwise, of these negotiations.

Rogers’ play works both as a piece of documentary theatre, unpacking a historical moment, and – in a time of what feels like increasing social division – a valuable reminder of just what can be achieved if people are wiling to put aside their own agendas and work towards a common good.

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An assured production of an intelligent, intricate play illuminating recent political history