The paperwork of the first peace accord between Israel and Palestine doesn’t sound an exciting subject for a three-hour play. But JT Roger’s Oslo shows that peace can be gripping, especially when it is as unconventional as the agreements that took place in Norway in 1993.
It revolves around the nine months of secret negotiation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) on the neutral soil of Norway. It was an illegal partaking, Israeli officials were forbidden to speak to the PLO. Even hosting the thing was controversial - the Berlin wall had just crumbled and the US position as leader of the free world had been cemented. Staging talks without their involvement was unusual, not least because they were sponsoring an official set of talks in Washington the very same year.
To guide us through the politics are Mona Juul, then-foreign minister for Norway and her husband Terje Rød-Larsen, a sociologist who hoped that he could bring together the warring sides through a process of ‘gradualism’, dealing with the situation issue-by-issue. Their shared vision prioritised that both sides become familiar, eat together, drink (or, more accurately, get drunk) together and confront each problem one at a time. The PLO’s finance minister, Ahmed Qurie and Hassan Asfour, meet Israel’s economic scholars Yair Hershfeld and Ron Pundak. Tense would be an understatement.
The script is surprisingly silly (‘you were my first Jew,’ announces Asfour after the first round of talks. ‘I hope I wasn’t too stringy,’ retorts Pundak). The moments of humour are necessary relief from the high tension and let the audience exhale audibly. However, throughout there is also the silliness of the whole situation - at any one moment the play shows four suited men squabbling over the fate of millions. This is identified in an early scene, as the four stand with bated breath in the doorway, looking to Rød-Larsen something akin to a ridiculous barbershop quartet. ‘Aren’t you coming in with us?’ Hirschfeld asks tragically. In that moment the play asks, how can four people do this?
As Oslo moves through the nitty gritty of what a two-state solution would really mean, it becomes clear that graduation is an ideal format for a play - each scene becomes more sweaty and nerve-fraying than the last. The process becomes more official and more powerful egos are brought in – Uri Savir, the director general of the foreign ministry and Joel Singer, lawyer and confidante of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, replace the two economists. They bring us closer to the final showdown, Prime Minister Rabin and PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, meeting in person.
“Where Oslo triumphs is the way it explores - and almost characterises - a ‘neutral’ position”
In 1993, Norway made its neutrality an active stance and historians are still divided about whether its efforts made the situation better or worse. Sober asides draw attention to the warfare that continues to wrack the two countries and Juul ‘still can’t help but wonder if what we did was right’.
The play shows that a moments of peace can happen, and you won't want to miss a minute.
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