Phil Willmott

Review: OSLO at the National Theatre

Oslo - Harold Pinter Theatre You won't want to miss this extremely classy evening that's intellectually fascinating, very entertaining and showcases the very best of New York and London's theatre talent.

The knotty but engaging play premiered on Broadway last year. It collected a raft of top U.S theatre awards before being remounted with the same director but a British cast for this brief run at the National Theatre, before it transfers to Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End.

The action takes place in 1995 when negotiations between the Israelis and Palistinians were deadlocked. Even the question of who could speak for and to whom was mired in confusion with those perceived as terrorists by one side, regarded as freedom fighters by there own kind and banned by their opposite numbers from attending peace talks. Meanwhile the situation was becoming more and more exacerbated by violence from both sides dominating headlines around the world.

Clearly someone had to do something and fast. That someone was the unlikely figure of Terje Rød-Larsen, a foppish Norwegian diplomat. Together with his wife, Mona Juul, they organised secluded meetings between opposition forces, held in secret locations away from the media and potential intervention from other governments. It was at these meetings that a road map to peace was formulated, not at the high profile summits in New York that eventually became a smokescreen behind which those in Norway were free to genuinely debate.

Getting people drenched in mutual hatred around the same table is easier said then done, especially when the strutting alpha males of Middle Eastern politics are concerned. Much of play deals with the brilliant managing and manoeuvring of these vain and stubborn men by Mona and Terje.

Their solution is to create a two part sanctuary for negotiations. The inner room is where the protagonists sit for hours gnawing at the their differences, the outer room however is where they're mothered by a housekeeper serving delicious national dishes and plied with the finest alcohol. The men slowly relax in each other's company succumbing to jokes and bonding in their dislike of Terje and enthusiasm for Mona. Although throughout, despite the aggressive machismo we sense their admiration and appreciation of both.

Despite everyone's scepticism the couple really do seem to be acting from the purest motives in facilitating peace talks. Tellingly neither raises much objection when they are excluded from the reception thrown to mark the outcome.

Don't worry if, like me, you know little about politics in the Middle East. Playwright J.T. Rogers is brilliant at feeding you all the information you need to understand what's at stake for each character at each point in the story.

It feels old fashioned to watch a stageful of men deliberating these days, when London Theatre is so committed to gender balance. However there are terrific performances from Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard as the power broking couple and Peter Polycarpou is magnificent as the chief Palestinian negotiator, a role which allows him to be steely, raucous and funny whilst alternating between vulnerable and bullish.

Undoubtedly this will be seen as a theatrical highlight of 2017.

Oslo tickets