The Berlin Wall has fallen, offering the chance to do what has so far proved impossible. That is how Norwegian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (played by Toby Stephens) argues the case to go ahead with the secret talks that resulted in the Oslo Accord of 1993 and the famous handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House.
Oslo follows the ensuing and highly dramatic nine months of secret talks between two representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and a series of Israeli negotiators, each one closer to the centre of power.
Written by American playwright JT Rogers, the play takes up the theme of “gradualism”, championed by Rod-Larsen, which places human connections at the root of successful diplomacy.
This enables him to present the initially, and understandably, highly hostile interaction between the Palestinians and Israelis and then follow the gradual easing of tensions. He shows how this in turn brings out the underlying humanity between them, made clear early on by their shared swooning over their host’s Norwegian cook’s waffles!
All this is helped by having most of the action take place in drawing rooms, away from the straitjacket of the negotiating table, enabling emotions to run high and to quickly change from outright aggression to light-hearted, and at times very funny, banter, and back again.
Uppermost throughout is obviously the conflict itself. Rogers very deftly enables his players to bring out the nuts and bolts of the history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the violence of the occupation forces, the power of the first Intifada — one of the triggers behind the talks — the Israeli state’s nuclear arsenal and much more as the talks progress.
In addition, almost as a sub-plot, is the role of top-ranking Norwegian politicians whose initial horrified reaction to the talks is wonderfully portrayed. So are the tensions and stress that Rod-Larsen and his diplomat wife, Mona Juul (wonderfully played by Lydia Leonard), undergo in setting up the talks and acting as go-betweens when one or both sides walk out and refuse to return.
The mix of dramatic interaction between the main protagonists and the political backdrop makes for a marvellously engrossing and well-acted play, which ends, not with the handshake, but with each actor reporting on headlines from the ongoing conflict that follow that handshake.
It brings the cold light of day back into the theatre, making it clear that although the Oslo Accord did make a difference, inasmuch that both sides acknowledged the other as legitimate agents, the conflict goes on deeper today and at times more violent than ever.