Daniel Nelson

Oslo

Oslo

Image by Production photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

But he seemed to be a minority of one. The packed traditionally middle-aged to elderly audience was far more appreciative, even laughing gustily at the well-worn jokes, such as Mao's verdict on the French revolution, Norway being so small that everyone knows – and may have slept with – everyone else, and an unworldly Norwegian couple planning to serve pork at a dinner party for Muslims and Jews.

Older people will remember the 1993 Oslo agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, sealed with a handshake by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn. But it was a long time ago in social media terms, and aeons ago in geopolitical time.

Few youngsters know about it, or would consider it interesting, particularly as the agreement collapsed the following year. They would be wrong not to be interested, of course, because the initially top secret talks (at a time when it was illegal for Israelis to meet PLO representatives) were a triumph for the Norwegian couple who initiated the series of meetings by creating a relaxing atmosphere and being a little economical with the truth. Their emphasis on the personal as political proved a far more effective path to results (“It's up to you to stay in this room and find a way forward”) than the sterile official US-sponsored talks that had begin two years before and were going nowhere.

The personal element is what makes the play feasible – and entertaining. Without the personalities it would be a group of men squabbling over commas and definitions. US writer J. T. Rogers underlines the point by setting almost the entire play in the lounge rather than the negotiating room. Only towards the end do we witness point-by-point negotiations, and then the play loses its zip.

In the first half of this three-hour epic the two Palestinians – the dour communist and the older, more humane PLO minister – provide a contrasting double-act, plus a quieter sub-plot between the self-regarding research institute head and his highly competent foreign ministry wife. The two Israeli academics are less sharply delineated. In the second half the balance is rectified and perked up by the dramatic arrival of the powerful Israeli official sent to take over the negotiations and turn discussions into reality.

Most of the action comes from some short scenes, the choreographing of the cast's movements and an occasional boost from a short burst of backdrop newsreel. It's an intelligent, excellent, absorbing production, a fascinating footnote to history, that slightly buckles under its own weight in the final bout of haggling.

There's an obligatory attempt to end on a positive note and send audiences home with the thought that all was not in vain, but, looking at the news, the optimism doesn't convince.

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