Oslo: An Inventive and Inspiring Peace/Piece.
Who knew that a three hour play about the infamous Oslo Peace Accord miraculously achieved by an overly optimistic Norwegian couple could be so riveting. From the moment Jefferson Mays (The Front Page) and Jennifer Ehle (The Coast of Utopia) walk on stage embodying this surprising couple, Terje Rod-Larsen, the director of the Fafo Institute, and his esteemed wife, Mona Juul, an official in the Foreign Ministry of Norway, we all lean in so we may catch every word and every reference within Oslo, the magnificent new play on the main stage at the Lincoln Center Theater (and currently playing at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre). The information flys at us rapidly but, as written by the astonishing J. T. Rogers (Blood and Gifts), we follow every detail and every introduction. Meticulously constructed, this is an epic story of how two Norwegians got two ___ enemies, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to stand face to face in the Rose Garden on September 13, 1993 in the presence of President Clinton and shake hands. That in itself is the miracle that the world had given up on, but on that day, after over a year of secret talks near Oslo, these two would official sign into effect the Oslo Accord that would lead to the resolution of the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
What an amazing act of tight rope walking we are witness to as directed with the utmost skill and intelligence by Bartlett Sher. The Accord was a complex diplomatic enterprise with numerous players all working for hours upon hours struggling against history to come to some agreement. Each character entering into this beautiful sparse and well orchestrated stage, designed with a minimal and perfect eye for detail and meaning (sets: Michael Yeargan, costumes: Catherine Zuber, lighting: Donald Holder), are introduced to us with some form of contextual information given by Ehle, as the uncredited narrator. It is seamless and exacting, direct and thrilling. We feel like a lucky fly on the wall as we watch all the different players fight, squabble, and earnestly try to overcome decades of mistrust, fear, and hatred, while the outside world struggled with violence and death. We see the death and destruction projected on the back wall in gritty black and white (projections: 59 Productions). It adds tremendous weight to the proceedings, which turns this from an exercise to life and death.
The Palestine contingent, made up of Ahmed Qurie, the Finance Minister for the Palestine Liberation Organization, played passionately and exquisitely by Anthony Azizi, and the official PLO liaison with the Palestinian Delegation at the US sponsored talks going on in Paris during the same period, Hassan Asfour, portrayed with equal passion and an intense fire by Dariush Kashani are a powerful pair. Brought in to talk at first to two Isreali professors of economics at the university of Haifa, Yair Hirschfeld (a magnificently quirky Daniel Oreskes) and his colleague, Ron Pundak (an equally quirky and wonderful Daniel Jenkins). These four, with the help of the Norwegian couple, and two wonderful caretakers, the waffle making housekeeper and cook of the Borregaard estate, Toril Grandal (Henny Russell) and her groundsman husband, Finn Grandal (T. Ryder Smith), start the process of drafting the DOP, Declaration of Principals, that would eventually lead to the peace accord. The other players from Isreal that come in later as the process gains traction are Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister (Daniel Oreskes), Yossi Beilin, Deputy Foreign Minister (Adam Dannheisser), Joel Singer, Senior law partner for a Washington, D.C. firm, and my favorite character in the whole production, the intense but exciting Uri Savir, Director General of the Foreign Ministry, played with sexy appeal by the magnificent Michael Aronov. All have a pivotal and important role in the expansion and development of this historical accord. Before these first meetings, these men had never met face to face anyone from the opposing side. It was ground breaking what happened in that estate on the outskirts of Oslo. These men got to know each other, outside of the intense negotiations and learned to like and care for their enemy. The bond formed by Ahmed Qurie and Uri Savir is wonderfully emotional and powerfully engaging, as we literally ache for them to find resolution. It was an impressively brilliant piece of rule making by the organizer, Rod-Larsen, that the men could not speak politics once outside the conference room. They would have ‘red-line’ boundaries and only talk from a personal perspective over dinners and endless glasses of Johnnie Walker. “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.” says Mays’s character, Rod-Larsen. Mays portrayal of this organizer is magnificent in its subtle and hopeful approach by an impressively passionate man, moved by the pain and fear of war he saw while visiting Gaza with his incredible devoted and intelligent wife, Mona. Ehle is spectacular in her important role as wife, diplomatic official, and inspirational role model for peace for both sides. In some ways, it is she who bridges the gap, at one point painting the picture for these two opposing men in a canvas as large and as deeply personal as she can. Without these two players intensely committed to a conflict far outside their personal world, this monumental peace accord would never have been completed.
The other Norwegians, Johan Jorgen Holst, Foreign Minister of Norway (T. Ryder Smith who also vanished into the character of groundsman Grandal), and his wife, Marianne Heiberg, executive with the Fafo Institute (Henny Russell, again, almost unrecognizable from the character of housekeeper Grandal) play their diplomatic roles with perfection. The repeated scene of these two with Holst and Juul couldn’t be better orchestrated if they tried. The whole exploration of how this accord came to be is most effectively done by all. I didn’t know peace accords could be so thrilling, so much so that I found myself tearing up at moments when the future of the accord look dark and foreboding. These real life men stepped out far and deep from their comfort zone in a truly majestic leap of faith and trust. Although what was accomplished is still being debated as either a brilliant piece of negotiation or a dangerous mistake, that handshake will go down in history as something unprecedented and a symbol that almost anything can be accomplished in the name of peace. This play is also astounding in its own, smaller world, context; a truly inspirational piece of epic story telling about something that many think sounds like a dull premise. The playwright admits that this secret bit of history, hidden from the headlines and the history books should not be considered an accurate documentary of the dialogue but only his inventive version of the events that took place. He has crafted his play, Oslo, together into a dramatic piece of story telling, and for that we should be inspired as well, that all is possible if one believes.