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Surprisingly thrilling US drama about the Oslo Accords
The Oslo Accords were the set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation drawn up in 1993 as a result of clandestine diplomatic talks set up between them by an unlikely pair of ambitious Norwegians.
If you’re questioning how exactly one might extrapolate an entertaining three-hour play out of that, perhaps the simplest thing to do is invoke James Graham’s brilliant ‘This House’, which did a similar job making the minority Labour government of the 1970s seem furiously exciting.
Basically, it’s all about the banter. Playwright JT Rogers gives us memorable characters, thickets of macho quips and enough testosterone to drown a small country. The grinding of dramatic machinery is audible as Rogers and director Bartlett Sher haul the players into place: vain, slightly absurd Norwegian academic Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens on flamboyant form); Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard), his rather more sensible partner who works for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry; the PLO’s pragmatic Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou) and stern, rabidly Marxist Hassan Asfour (Nabil Elouahabi); dick-swinging Israeli minister Uri Savir (Philip Arditti); and Savir’s terrifyingly badass lawyer Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan).
It is an old-fashioned play that takes a while to warm up and has little in the way of surprises for anyone vaguely acquainted with the Middle East peace process. And yet, around the midpoint of the second half, I realised I was absolutely, 100 percent gripped. Partly that’s down to the sharp, detailed script and – let’s be honest – buddy movie tropes, as the negotiators booze and prank their way to camaraderie. But it’s also about the humanity: a group of men (Leonard is great as Mona but there’s no denying the essential maleness of the work) coming together because of a shared decency, who have the strength to see past decades of pain and look each other in the eye. It’s moving, meaty stuff, a veritable box-set binge of a drama.
Still, I’m not sure I quite get the intensity of the acclaim ‘Oslo’ received when Sher’s production debuted in New York (it won two gongs at this year’s Tony Awards). I’m not joking when I say it reminds me of ‘This House’, but it feels less colourful and inventive, literally greyer (everyone wears grey suits). At the very, very end, Rogers raises some smart questions over whether the Accords meant anything or were just Terje’s vanity project, but it feels a bit too little, too late to really get inside the characters’ heads.
As a robustly entertaining preservation of an interesting chapter in recent world history, ‘Oslo’ delivers. But its bullish, alpha-male chutzpah never feels particularly fresh, despite its eventual, irresistible momentum.