In the city of Oslo, Norway, in 1993, two people decided to try to – as J. T. Rogers puts it in his new play – “change the world”. Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, a married couple working for a research organisation and the Norwegian foreign office respectively, decided that they were in the unique position of being able to host a backchannel of talks that would eventually lead to peace in Palestine and Israel. While this long term goal was, of course, unsuccessful, the backchannel resulted in the Oslo Accords, the closest to peace that the two nations ever reached. It is this high-stakes piece of history that Oslo shows us, and while it does serve as something of a history lesson, the play has plenty to offer as entertainment as well.
The acting is impeccable, slick and controlled from each company member. Director Bartlett Sher has choreographed a world that segues easily between complete chaos and deathly silence. Although the subject matter has to do that unenviable task of both representing history and maintaining interest, the script still manages to be incredibly funny, and each character – no matter how little stage time they may have – is painted convincingly and sympathetically.
While every member of the company is impressive, it is the main actors Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens, as Juul and Rød-Larsen, who provide a secure centre for the rest of the play. Just as they host and keep at ease the opposing sides, so too do they reassure the audience. Leonard as Juul also functions as a pseudo-narrator, filling in the gaps in each swift transition, explaining the context of both the historical and the personal changes in the characters’ lives. It’s a necessary addition, functioning both as needed explanation and a means of smoothing out large set changes, but it does seem to reduce Juul to second-fiddle, allowing her husband to perform the more important work – a mild frustration, given that she is the official civil servant of the two. Nevertheless, Stephens and Leonard are as admirable a pair as Juul and Rød-Larsen were themselves, and their genuine passion and drive keeps both the play and the peace talks in motion.
Michael Yeargan’s set itself is as epic as the play: vast walls of a generic political building that double up as a screen onto which videos can be projected. These take us across the world of the Israeli-Pakistan conflict, projecting real images and clips from news stories around the actors onstage. The set serves to miniaturise the cast, making every scene seem small. The effect of this could so easily be to dwarf the actors and the story with it, but it rather reminds us of the significance in every conversation happening within the play. We are reminded that history is happening in each scene, and we feel the weight in each moment that the characters are feeling too.
Whether you’re well versed in the history of this conflict, or are going in with the vaguest of knowledge, Oslo is worth a trip. It’s a play that will teach as much as it will entertain, as wittily compelling as it is ambitiously educational, and the drama is easily as epic as the history itself.
After its run at the National, Oslo will transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October until 30 December.