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FringeReview UK 2017


National Theatre, London; Lincoln Center Theatre, New York

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Political, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Bartlett Sher directs J T Rogers’ Oslo at the National’s Lyttelton. Michael Yeargan’s neutral ambassadorial residence of a set, lit by Donald Holder and 59 Production’s projections scudding us to Middle East locations. This cool backdrop and cooler costumery by Catherine Zuber plays off Peter John Still’s sound design. Till September 30th, transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre from October 2-December 30.


Heard the one about the Buddhist priest and the Rabbi? Or Mossad and the bear confessing it’s a rabbit? A Peace Accords thriller with jokes. Oslo’s monumental 1993 agreement between Israel and the PLO covered in a three-hour play certainly sounds, well… monumental. Even acclaiming director Bartlett Sher’s enormous clarity with J T Rogers Tony-winning Oslo – arguments flying like tiny neon filaments in a vacuum – doesn’t hint at how three hours of a gruelling peace process with characters no-one’s heard of can flash by. This is thrilling political theatre; but it’s memorable, studded with mostly new (and one brand-new-ancient) joke. And how is it the PLO trust only a Norwegian sociologist at the end of a phone and three hours later?


We’re thrust into Michael Yeargan’s neutral ambassadorial residence of a set, a panorama swept round the Lyttelton stage, its imposing grey walls lit by Donald Holder and 59 Production’s projections scudding us to Middle East locations, riots and at one still moment, a Norwegian Wood without a hint of John Lennon. This cool backdrop and cooler costumery by Catherine Zuber plays off the bull-faced expletives of Howard Ward’s Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst. The greatest diplomatic coup of the age is being pulled off by pulling a neutral rug from under his feet? By amateurs? Rogers plays with the living protagonists he’s met through Sher in fact, but it’d be good to know Norwegian ministers swear better than ours do. Sometimes Peter John Still’s sound design seems to manage it, a simple chord recalling Holst’s Fs.


Toby Stephens’ Terje Rød-Larsen is a sociologist heading Fafa (no, it’s a real institute) with a plan: a new mode of facilitating diplomacy by actually listening, letting the sides alone in a room. It’s scary and naturally he’s not a diplomat: his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) is, working for Holst and his flexible deputy Jan Egeland – Thomas Arnold’s edgy rabbit-stare at a juggernaut is a case-study in realpolitik without a Bismark. Like his boss, he has to be frightened and flattered into accepting it. By the time we get to the reprise of Holst’s Fs at the end of the first act, diplomacy breaks out, and diplomacy has, diplomatically, little to do with it. We learn one thing: at all costs keep out the Americans who’d wreck it out of envy. But secrecy is all: discovery and failure for the two sides means instant disgrace or for the Palestinians, an assassin’s bullet.


Stephens and Leonard are front and centre more than say Stoppardian commentators: a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here backing into the limelight. Stephens’ character is both idealist and slightly overweening over-reacher, albeit in an appealing way. His character anticipates everything but how things actually go wrong, including jokes, and not least how irritating he can be. Stephens though winningly conveys decency, surprisingly lightning impro and infinite capacity for well, diplomacy. Knowing when to lie, even to his chief ally, his wife.


Leonard though is the true diplomat, elegantly twisting danger to resolution as well as telling off hiatus catastrophe and snag with off-hand weary charm. She narrates how everyone’s slept with everyone else and given them a job with the refrain: ‘In Norway we take nepotism to an entirely new level … it’s a small country.’ It recalls a moment from the third of Rona Munro’s The James Plays about Denmark and coming from a rational country. Naturally nearly everything Leonard’s character conveys deadpan raises a similar laugh. Rogers means it when he states he studied Coward plays. And crucially, there’s food.


There’s a point too where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do emerge: two Israeli ‘semi-well-dressed’ professors Paul Herzberg (later a startlingly lifelike Shimon Peres) and again Thomas Arnold full of jokes meet Peter Polycarpu’s PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie and as talks ratchet up, Nabil Elouahabi’s Hassan Asfour, PLO liaison – gruff bad-cop role melting slowly throughout in Elouahabi’s watchful, wry translation of even cooking into Marxist theory. First Herzberg and Arnold’s professors are negotiators, then merely minute-takers, finally excluded from the room altogether. ‘It’s not about you’ says Larsen. But at the end, his wife touchingly reminds him of those same words.


It’s the jokes of course that form nodal points: you know they’re going to go off disastrously, and sometimes astonishingly right. So Arditti’s high-wire about Mossad hits a fantastically tender spot as Polycarpu’s incredulous Qurie explodes. Polycarpu, recently in a similar role in Rattigan’s Ross, is often called to bring an edgy, dangerous political weight to roles diverse as this as once he sang as an American diplomat in Miss Saigon. His self-peeling of doubts particularly towards negotiator Uri Savir played with a volatile sexy danger by Philip Arditti is the kernel of rapprochement. How an apparently gung-ho advisor to the deputy foreign minister under Shimon Peres unbends, touches the core of this work. Not before he narrates his contortive dog-leg to Paris to put off trackers, clambering out of hotel rooms. He teaches Juul metaphorically to do the same in dancing her favourite routine. ‘Let me guess. The tango… The hips. They never lie’ putting Larsen himself in a defensive twist about ballroom skills. Polycarpu’s and Arditti’s volatile one-step forward two swivels sideways three back has the fury of a tango too, more thrilling dare one say it than anything in Strictly. They conjure moments when in a thoroughly Norwegian key you want to cry or cheer. Not least when the opposing sides learn to play white-knuckle jokes on earnest wide-eyed Larsen himself.


The extraordinary moments are hard-won, Leonard almost directing us through the knurls and knobbles of hiccups, hour-long waits between each call, conveying again how she finesses every gambit taken by Stephens, equally inspired, equally at times disastrous. There’s fine work too from Jacob Krichefski as Yossi Berlin, nifty hard-talking Deputy to Peres‘ Foreign Minister. Even here, the rivalry between Peres and Yitzhak Rabin means it’s virtually impossible to sell this to the latter. Neither Rabin nor Arafat are seen, still less Clinton in gis godfather role at the actual Accords.


Daniel Stewart’s US Diplomat though makes his presence felt and in fairness cuts one late Gordian knot. Stewart here and as a watchful security man plays comic menace and deadpan hard-drinker with physical presence you don’t argue with. Yair Jonah Lotan’s fixer Joel Singer etches a fine-tuned tightrope-walker spelling out pitfalls and promises. Geraldine Alexander as minister’s wife and head cook sashays through uneasy attentions mostly about what food she twirls in. It’s a male environment highlighting Leonard’s lonely role, slightly alleviated by the miniature splenetics of Karolina Goble as un-obliging Swedish hostess and German tourist, and Anthony Shuster’s groundsman or tourist shambling elegantly out of any sense of what’s going on. An epilogue touchingly records the characters’ fates. Rogers has created above all an intelligently fallible couple to believe in.


Oslo is the kind of recent-history play to place with Michael Frayn’s Democracy, the riven vagaries of Copenhagen, or more distantly, of a scope not so far removed from Munro’s James Plays trilogy. It might lack the poignancy of Frayn’s protagonists, because diplomatic coups like happiness write as white as Norwegian décor; and the characters aren’t tragically flawed. Though the shadows, we need hardly reminding – we are reminded – fall thick enough after 1993 when everything unravels. But the complexities of at least four protagonists with vivid cameos cut in hard relief manage a pathos like Schubert, in the major key.


That such methods, never used again, yield such results shows us just how American meddling returned as the useless dominant mode, how after thirty years the PLO became redundant, and settlement’s the kind of dream it seemed in 1992. The Norwegians and their woods are still there; as is their modest world-bartering example.