What keeps coming to mind as you’re watching the extraordinary Oslo is how particular the mechanics behind the momentous can be.
If you have ever observed those moments when a peace treaty is signed, a legendary handshake performed, or two old enemies come to share a stage, Oslo—as performed in the beautifully proportioned Vivian Beaumont by Lincoln Center Theater—provides the opportunity to see and eavesdrop on how these era-defining moments materialize.
At a time when sensibly overseen international diplomacy is so needed, Oslo—first performed off-Broadway last year—shows it at its most effective, with a wry and realistic eye trained on both participants and politics.
The story of how the Oslo Accords of 1993 came to be signed at the White House—leading to the famous image of then-President Clinton raising his arms to encircle Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as they shook hands—is little known.
Yet, even if you have little or fleeting interest in the Middle East peace process or diplomatic intrigue, or the key role that Norwegian hospitality—particularly waffle-making—played in the Oslo Accords, you will find J.T. Rogers’s carefully researched play supremely riveting. Every aspect of it—the writing, the direction by Bartlett Sher, the fine performances—is pretty near immaculate.
First we meet Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle). From April 1992 to September 1993, the time span of the play, he was director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, and she was an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, working for Johan Jorgen Holst, then-Norway’s foreign minister, who was married to Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell), an executive at the Fafo Institute working for Rød-Larsen.
The story of how on earth this ambitious and likeable diplomatic couple became such vital power-players is sketched quickly, with the aid of a panoramic screen behind the stage, flashing images up of key, mostly tragic, moments in the Middle East conflict.
Juul’s first diplomatic post was in Cairo, and they traveled to Egypt, Israel, Gaza, and Jerusalem and saw at bloody close-hand—as Juul revealed in a fascinating Summer 2016 interview with the Lincoln Center Theater Review—both Israel and Palestine at violent, perpetual odds.
The PLO approached the Norwegians, Juul said, to help set up a dialogue with the Israelis; the PLO had been excluded from an American-led peace process because it was considered a terrorist organization. The Israeli side could not be seen to be in discussions with them.
In Norway, the two sides were to come together, talk, and negotiate—all in secret at the off-the-radar Borregaard estate outside Oslo.
We see the preparations for the meeting: the courtly respect that Juul and Rød-Larsen insist on from the outset. This insistence on respectful tone is their first masterstroke. There are visible nerves on all sides as the first Israelis enter the process: two befuddled-looking academics from the University of Haifa, Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins).
From the PLO is the smooth Ahmed Qurie (“Abu Ala,” played by Anthony Azizi) and the more volcanically tempered Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani). Both sides are concerned about giving too much away, of betraying their countries, and the pain—of inflicted losses by either side—is never far from the surface.
Sher’s direction is as smooth and clever as Rogers’s writing: Desks are pushed on and off the stage, or appear from below, and disappear the same way. The back-screen shows panoramic images of conflict, or trees to signify a woodland walk. The stage is as much psychological space as physical: There are benches on the side which act as observational spaces, or imagined edges of the rooms the characters find themselves in.
The relations between the four men are nervy, combustible, and eventually friendly. True amity descends when Toril Grandal (Henny Russell), the kindly and otherworldly housekeeper and cook at Borregaard, slows the pace and diffuses the tension by talking about the food the men are eating, particularly the waffles.
And these waffles turn out not just to be ambrosial, but a catalyst for the play’s most intriguingly sketched blossomings: friendship and trust. They also earn her the twinkly love of Qurie.
In such ways does Oslo occasionally make us laugh. Indeed, there are some really excellent jokes in it, which will go unspoiled here. The absurdity of levity in the situation is as present as high-stakes political brinkmanship: Ehle is such a calm operator that the moment she freaks out at some randomly-appeared tourists is a moment of dramatic wonder.
Within the conversations there are wry surprises too: In the middle of the backwards and forwards over giving up territory, and ownership of cities, one character asks another who—the Israelis and the Palestinians—will be responsible for tax and garbage collection. That’s what the government really needs to get right.
The play is a study of relationships, the push and pull of shifting alliances, and the personal meeting the political—with Juul and Rød-Larsen’s relationship to each other, and events they are benevolently puppeteering, the most fascinating.
She is by far the more capable and even-keeled of the two, and Ehle exudes a warm but no-nonsense authority and capability in all her dealings, which is appreciated by all sides. She is the anchor of events: a steely hostess for whom propriety, fair play, and commitment are key to progress. She is a blunt realist, and skilled mediator.
Mays’s Rød-Larsen is a more skittish and intrusive figure, whose interventions and presence eventually become an impediment. The staging here is key: its circular shape suddenly becomes an unpredictable, menacing battlefield.
Mays brilliantly captures a man so focused on being the stage manager of this moment in history that he doesn’t realize how consigned to the periphery he can become. All the main players prefer Juul’s presence anyway.
As Juul has said, and as the play makes clear, she and Rød-Larsen trod a fine and blurry line between being facilitators and brokers of diplomacy.
The Israeli side has its own status anxiety: Just as amity seems to be breaking out between both sides comes the vexatious figure of Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who swings his hips libidinously remembering the fleshy joys of diplomatic life in New York City.
An outrageous, loud figure (his ramped-up volume hovers on the verge of making him a little impossible to watch, but it is thankfully dialed down), Aronov is also ruthless and unyielding, as is Washington, D.C., lawyer Joel Singer (a blustering and menacing Jeff Still, standing in for Joseph Siravo) who suddenly appears to do his own brokering for Israel. Tempers increase, vibrating aggression pervades the talks, and then just as suddenly a rather astonishing moment of coming together unfolds.
This is a fascinating play, and a fascinating glimpse of history in the making. At its end the play throws forward through the intervening years of events that have shattered the spirit of the Accords, through to the present day. We learn of what happened to the protagonists next. This is a salutary snapshot of how even key events in history are part of a larger progression, just as the play is a salutary snapshot of human endeavor and determination.
Oslo is, most surprisingly, a bracing examination of human fortitude and effort against improbable odds; what can spring from unlikely determination, and what is achieved from it. Its final questions, shared by Juul and Rød-Larsen, are the most searching: Should we have tried; and how can we judge to have succeeded, or failed? That is not only the heart of Oslo, but the complex heart of diplomacy itself.
Oslo is at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City. Book tickets through June 18 here.