A three-hour re-creation of a forgotten chapter in the Middle East peace process? If you’re trying to persuade someone to go with you to see Oslo, best not to describe it that way. A screwball comedy about diplomacy might do the trick.
And it’s nearer the mark. J.T. Rogers’ based-on-fact account of how a Norwegian diplomat and her husband created a secret dialogue between Israel and the PLO is more entertaining than it has any right to be. It’s a rich human farce that fills the stage with big, uncompromising characters – then forces them to compromise.
Toby Stephens is in his element as Terje Rod-Larsen, the slightly louche (for Norway) academic who in 1992 creates a back-channel for talks between the PLO finance minister and Israeli representatives. His diplomat wife Mona Juul is horrified when she gets wind of his plan, and so – in a hilariously profane outburst – is her boss, the Norwegian foreign minister.
They are playing with fire. If word gets out to the Israeli public, it will topple a government. If word gets out on the Arab side, it could mean an assassin’s bullet for the PLO negotiators. The stakes are high – but so is the comedy. Rogers never lets the statecraft and the quid-pro-quo of the talks slow things down.
In one of the play’s best moments, the senior Israeli negotiator (a scene-stealing turn by Philip Arditti) takes advantage of a drunken interlude to do a ridiculously camp impression of Yasser Arafat, with his jacket as an improvised headdress. Will the Palestinians take offence? No, they love it. The only people these characters despise more than each other, it seems, are their own bosses.
Again and again, Rogers shows how entrenched positions on either side are worn down by human contact, by shared jokes or by, for instance, discovering their daughters have the same name.
Bobbing around the hard men, Stephens’s Terje is a squirming dilettante, forced at times to lie to both sides to keep the ball rolling; but when a character quotes Yitzhak Rabin’s dictum, “What is a lie but a dream that could come true?” it feels like his vindication.
Meanwhile, in a cast full of swaggering alpha males Lydia Leonard as Mona embodies the voice of female sanity, shrugging off their flirtations and their sulks with equal grace. But the cast is impeccable across the board, from a wacky Israeli economist to a cynical bodyguard.
By the final curtain the realisation that the Oslo Accords didn’t, in the end, lead to peace – or even a lasting peace process – feels cruel. As does the sense of nostalgia for an era, the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War made anything seem possible.
Oslo is at the National’s Lyttelton theatre, London, until 23 September. Box office: 020-7452 3000. Then at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, from 30 September. Box office: 0844 871 7627.