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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Oslo
Lyttelton Theatre September 2017; Harold Pinter Theatre October-December 2017

A fascinating and always clear history lesson, an inspiring account of what human beings of determination and good will can achieve, and a tragically ironic study in what might have been, Oslo is one of the fastest-moving and uninterruptedly engrossing three hours you are likely to spend in a theatre. 

It is also pretty much a true story. 

In 1992 Swedish academic and think-tank leader Terje Rod-Larsen posited the theory that diplomatic negotiations would be most successful on a small and personal scale, away from the need to posture before press conferences, with the negotiators encouraged to become friendly away from the table. 

Remarkably he convinced both the Israelis and Palestinians to send low-level unofficial representatives to a secret meeting in Oslo, and remarkably they achieved more in a weekend than on-and-off official negotiations had managed in years. Encouraged, both sides raised their delegations to official, if still top-secret, status. 

Over the next few months, with Rod-Larsen's guidance, goading and occasional manipulation, these men of good will hammered out a document offering a real blueprint for peace, and Yitzhak Rabin and |Yasser Arafat publicly signed and shook hands over it. 

And then, of course, it all fell apart as hard-liners on both sides refused to be convinced, and the old pattern of terrorism and reprisals was resumed. 

But they almost did it, and in the hands of playwright J. T. Rogers and this Tony Award-winning production from New York, that 'almost' makes for moving and engrossing drama. 

Directed skilfully by Bartlett Sher, Oslo does what we want historical drama to do, by taking us past what the history books tell and imagining possible personalities for the real-life figures to bring the story alive. 

As played by Toby Stephens. Rod-Larsen is an intriguing and attractive mix of naive academic too unworldly to know that his plan can't possibly work and thus able to make it work, ambitious manipulator with one eye on the Nobel Peace Prize (which ironically bypassed him to go to Rabin and Arafat), and little kid thrilled to be allowed to play with the big kids. 

Lydia Leonard invests his wife and co-organiser Mona Juul with the charm that can help the negotiators over sticky moments and the good sense that can keep her husband's boyish enthusiasm in check.

Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti take the lead negotiators on each side through moving and thoroughly believable journeys from wary mistrust through growing mutual respect and friendship and the excitement of sensing how close they are getting to unimaginable success. 

Structurally Oslo bears some inevitable similarities to Lee Blessing's 1988 A Walk In The Woods, in which Russian and American negotiators develop a friendly relationship, and Lawrence Wright's 2014 Camp David, about the Jimmy Carter-brokered peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. 

But it is a stronger play than either of the others in its writing, production and performances, and a very strong contender (in an already strong season) for Drama of the Year.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Oslo - National Theatre 2017  

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