I met J T Rogers for a Platform at the National Theatre when his play Blood and Gifts was on. As I recall, he'd actually forgotten that he was meant to do a platform that evening and had gone out for a celebratory lunch with his visiting parents. But far from being annoyed at being dragged back to the National, he arrived filled with lunch and ebullience and joie de vivre and probably some wine (libel lawyers: this is speculation on my part). So the platform we did was, despite putatively discussing a play about the CIA's disastrous engagement in Afghanistan in the 1980s, an extremely jolly affair, full of warmth and laughter.
I thought the same watching Oslo. Since having a baby, chances for me and Lilla to go to the theatre together are fairly rare, so I buy two tickets with some care. I'm not sure what persuaded me that a reenactment of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and Palestine would be perfect date night material and nor, to judge by the look on her face as I outlined to her the evening before us, did Lilla. But in fact Oslo is a bit of a riot, full of jokes and large-than-life characters and moments of sharp tension alternating with some letting-your-hair-down moments. I won't say the three hours whizz by but it feels like a pleasure and not the expected chore.
The play is about a set of secret negotiations instigated by two rogue Norwegian diplomats while the Washington-sponsored peace talks were stalling. These two, Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, managed to keep the thing mostly secret, holding the talks in a castle outside Oslo, persuading the deeply suspicious Israelis to get more and more involved in negotiations, persuading the Palestinians to suspend their historical ressentiment in favour of open negotiation. And the thing led ultimately to that handshake between Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993.
Well, no, not 'ultimately' because then came the assassination of Rabin, the failure of Camp David II, the second Intifada, the election of Ariel Sharon, a terrible new wave of suicide bombings, Operation Defensive Shield, that Wall, the rise of Hamas and Fateh, the blockade of Gaza, rocket attacks on Israel, Operation Cast Lead, and more.
The way Rogers makes this play work is to pick on Terje Rød-Larsen's central idea. Terje is also an academic and he has a theory that international negotiations should not be pitched at the highest organisational or ideological level but at the lowest level: the personal and the particular. So, rather than sit and debate whether Israel has a historic right to exist, the Oslo negotiations talked about who would staff the checkpoints and who would collect whose rubbish. And rather than stand on formal ceremony as 'The Israeli Foreign Minister' and 'The Palestinian Finance Minister', participants in the negotiation were encouraged, at the end of the day, to talk personally, about their lives, their families, their childhoods; to drink together, eat together, laugh together.
Whether this is all a true depiction of the Oslo accords, I don't know. Terje, in the play, is a rather preening individual so if the play comes from his account of these events, it would not be surprising to find that this element was wildly exaggerated. But it gives Rogers licence to present these as rounded human beings and not ideological positions. That doesn't mean there isn't room for a lot of negotiation, because there is, but we watch not just the conflict between the Israel and Palestine claims but between private and public man.
I say 'man' because it is 'man'. This is a very blokey play. Perhaps inevitably, because it's based on the history, but even Mona Juul, the other rogue diplomat, seems to have no agency whatever and is given the compensatory position of narrator. There's a decent part for a gifted Norwegian female cook who furnishes the negotiations with waffles. But apart from that the women are walk ons and its men in shiny suits who dominate.
It's the old verbatim problem, in a way. The desire of much verbatim to restore the democratic deficit, to place us inside those rooms from which cameras are banned, means that those rooms are so often filled with men; and that means, from Half the Picture to Stuff Happens, the theatre rooms end up filled with men, too. Once in a while, that's okay, but I wondered what a play about the Oslo accords might look like that wondered what role male ego played in the intransigence. Oslo doesn't really care about that.
Rogers is very skilful at finding in the source material some wonderful structures. There is the difference between being in the negotiation room and outside it, which creates a visual-spatial clarity about the different roles the participants are called upon to play. Second, the Israelis were implacably opposed to meeting members of the PLO and so for the early rounds of negotiation, Israel was represented by two academics from Haifa. This creates an interesting tension, between the two Palestinian negotiators and their not-quite counterparts; it fuels the frustration, the insult, the resentment. By drawing attention to it, this allows the undramatic nature of their conflicts to become dramatic. It is after the interval, when Israel decides the talks are valuable enough to 'upgrade' and bring an Israeli government official into the talks, that the play goes up a gear, by introducing Uri Savir, director-general of the Foreign Ministry as Israel's representative. I don't know about the historical Savir but this one is a brattish, bragging, cocky, charming, self-dramatising, tower of ego and he really sets the stage alight (not literally). And then they trade up further bringing on a sceptical lawyer to relitigate the agreement, bringing whole new kinds of tension into the room. Finally, Rogers draws on as many peculiar interruptions to the smooth running of the process as he can, from two stray German tourists who interrupt proceedings to an awkward paper jam in the photocopier on the eve of signature. I assume these things are real; they're not interesting enough to have been made up.
And there's a thing. This kind of documentary-drama relies particularly on what Roland Barthes calls 'the reality effect'. He suggests that in 'realist' narratives (whether that means realist novels or history books) the tiny inconsequential detail has a particular force. These moments - the paper jam, for example - do not contribute structurally. They do not bring about a twist in the plot; they don't even really add much tension (a paper jam?). These 'insignificant notations', as Barthes calls them, do not contribute meaning to the texture of the whole, instead they produce meaning by their very excess, their inessentiality. As Barthes says, they 'say nothing but this: we are the real' (148). By their semantic redundancy, they accumulate a new second-order meaning that tells us (or tries to tell us) that this really happened. But for that to function, they must seem drab, ordinary, dull (a paper jam). I'll repeat what I said above: these moments are not interesting enough to have been made up.
(By contrast, there is a moment, just before the White House handshake where the Palestinian delegation have made a last minute change to the agreement and everything looks about to collapse; at which point a US diplomat comes in and just tells everyone what they're going to do. The moment might be real but it is so embedded in the creaky dramaturgy of 'third act jeopardy' that it looks false.)
This does create a theatrically depressive effect on so much documentary drama. It's required to impose a certain boringness on proceedings to ensure the audience accepts what is happening as real. In this play, this works because it's the mortgage that buys us Uri Savir, but we get his flamboyance only because of the shiny suits, the table arrangements, and the paper jams.
And in terms of this production is perhaps explains the horrible set. It's basically a large upstage flat with some wings (trust me: the photo above way flatters it). These pieces are all slightly curved and not entirely facing the audience, which creates a little more movement in the space, and they do half-heartedly project some stuff onto the walls, but nothing can hide that this is a set from an era of theatre design that I thought died sixty years ago. I've not seen anything this old-fashioned at the National since the Comédie Française brought their production of Marivaux's Les Fausses Confidences for a short run in 1997. During some of the longueurs (and don't believe the hype, there are some), I just stared at it, crossly, uncomprehending. You can see the joins in it. It's both monumentally dull and slightly amateurish. It's the ugliest set I can remember. But I wondered, maybe the dullness of the set is part of the point? It establishes its historiographic reliability. I just wish there was another way to do it.
Apart from the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, the real joy of this production are the quartet of participants in the negotiations. On the Palestinian side Ahmed Qurie played by Peter Polycarpou and Hassan Asfour played by Nail Elouahabi; on the Israeli side Philip Arditti inhabits Uri Savir and Joel Singer gives us Yair Jonah Lotan. Polycarpou is wonderful as the patrician Qurie, all bruised pride at any insult to his dignity and status; Elouahabi's is the firebrand Marxist radical who nearly scuppers the talks at the very beginning. There's a gorgeous moment where the cook comes in and explains how her prize waffles are made and then how she recommends you eat them; the negotiators all sit their slightly stunned, following her instructions - and at one moment, Elouahabi glances over at his neighbour's bowl, like a boy cheating in a maths test. It's a beautifully humanising moment and says as much as longer scenes of the men swapping childhood anecdotes. Philip Arditti's hyperactive performance manages to do something difficult, to make Savir both ridiculous and admirable. When he first arrives, he is all arrogance and superiority, but Terje rightly suspects this nerves. Later that evening, pumped up from the talks, Uri joins his hosts at their home and explains with boyish glee the (unnecessary) precautions that he took to disguise his movements. It's sweet and ridiculous but we also sense how high the stakes are for these talks. Joel Singer has the smallest of the four roles but he brings an icy note to the stage, seeming to halt everything with a mixture of venom and pedantry, suspicion and legalism. I wasn't overjoyed by the other performances, to be honest. Toby Stephens is probably good but he's just not my kind of actor; Terje is supposed to be self-advertising but should the actor be that too? Lydia Leonard performs Mona Juul with wry ease, but I felt perhaps a little too much wry ease. One false move and this could become the West patting itself on its undeserved back.
Because these talks were a breakthrough but they have hardly solved things. The final scene allows us to catch up with events since the signing and it's not encouraging. (In fact, it could be accused of being less encouraging than necessary.) At that point in the evening, although I'd enjoyed myself, I was ready for things to end, so I say with reservation that I felt I'd have liked to know more about that - what the play thinks now about all that comic subterfuge to create a peace accord that seems now to have mostly unravelled. If - as is momentarily suggested - this a too-European view of the events, in which case isn't that to fundamentally undermine the whole play?