By J.T. Rogers
National Theatre/Lincoln Center Theater/ATG production
Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell during a three week run (to September 23) at the National Theatre prior to moving to the Harold Pinter Theatre for a limited run from October 2 to December 30, 2017
Three hours of Norwegians forging peace negotiations between the Israelis and the PLO is not a promising start for a good night at the theatre. Added to the mix, this is as conventional a production as they come and you might be forgiven for opting for a quiet night in. It needs some really illuminating writing and utterly compelling performances to make such a proposition fly, but the good news here is that this multiple Tony winner, expertly directed by Bartlett Sher, has both.
Considering the low ebb we're currently at on 'The Palestinian Question' one wonders whether focusing on a historical detail from 1993 is worth the effort, but what J.T. Rogers makes very clear here is that the Oslo Accord was crucial. It marked the first time both sides formally recognised each other and it was the first time the PLO renounced violence as well as it laying the ground for the Palestinian Authority. It culminated in that famous White House ceremony where President Clinton stood like a beaming marriage celebrant between Rabin and Arafat.
The lynchpins of all this were Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens) and his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard), she a mid-ranking Foreign Ministry official and he the head of an NGO, the latter giving him the cover needed to start these very unofficial talks.
Stephens gives a finely tuned performance bringing a mordant wit to Terje and Leonard perfectly captures the keen emotional intelligence of Mona. It was this couple, facilitating secret meetings in country hideaway outside Oslo that led to the brokering of the historic Accord.
Terje championed a strategy of 'gradualism' as opposed to the 'totalism' which defined past approaches. His view was that all previous approaches foundered because the model had been flawed. His approach was to start by forging empathy between the parties as both pairs had never actually met anyone from the other side before. Building on these intimate discussions they could then slowly move on to what was possible, whilst keeping an eye to a shared future and studiously avoiding the ripping open of old wounds.
At the nervous first gathering the two pairs were as horrified as children on their first day at school to learn that their Norwegian hosts would not accompany them into the room. The couple maintained strict impartiality throughout to such an extent that they even united the two factions against them, if only in the late night banter sessions, when everyone left off steam.
Rogers is excellent on such details as the value of little white lies, which at crucial moments are essential to enable a necessary leap of faith to occur. He also illustrates the phenomenal risks taken by the couple throughout. To begin with they had to flatter the ego of the domineering and narcissistic Norwegian Foreign Minister. Howard Ward is wonderfully choleric as a politician who relishes, for once, keeping the Americans in the dark.
The participants ran even bigger risks, of course. For the Israelis it was against the law to even meet the PLO and the latter risked assassination if their cover was blown. Plausible deniability was the order of the day all round.
As the PLO pair Nabil Elouahabi is wonderfully edgy as the surly, Marxist, Hassan Asfour, contrasting with the warm, wily and quixotic Ahmed Qurie. In a career best performance Peter Polycarpou brings this commanding figure vibrantly alive.
Philip Arditti, too, is a standout as his lithe counterpart, Uri Savir. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' right hand man, he combines the vanity of an Argentine tango dancer (his passion) with the chill of an assassin. The clashes between Qurie and Savir contrasting with the gradual realisation by both of how much they actually have in common is the beating heart of this play. Mona warns them that the world has now grown tired of the issue "No one else is coming to help, so it is up to you", she pleads, and they get it.