Who knew a nearly three hour history lesson about Middle East politics from the 1990’s could be so riveting? Well, J.T Roger’s Oslo now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center is just that and much more.
Oslo recounts the true story of husband and wife team – Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul played by two time Tony winner Jennifer Ehle (The Real Thing & The Coast of Utopia) and her sociologist husband Terje Rod-Larsen played by Tony winner Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife) who facilitated the first ever secret talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which eventually led to the Oslo Accord peace agreement.
Mona and Terje’s goal is to engage and lead representatives from these two embattled nations to come to terms over their territorial and political issues in a most unusual and unlikely way – through a personal and humanistic connection. A big task considering it is widely thought that “in the Middle East – they don’t do peace.” These two terrific performances are well crafted and keep the story together and flowing with heart, genuineness and humor.
Thus unravels the heated tension of nine months of quick flowing, complicated peace negotiations over several occasions and the back and forth within each territory that follows each potential pass. Scholars, diplomats and mediators are gathered to hash out the specific differences between the nations in hopes of coming to a workable pact. What makes this interesting and unique is the couple‘s approach to doing this through more personal and social means by hosting these enemies in a comfortable and social surrounding – a chateau in neutral Norway. The stories, jokes, Johnnie Walker Black and food all flow encouraging them to find some human commonalities in the midst of bitter political and social difference.
They story is complicated but under the brilliant direction of Bartlett Sher it flows quickly and informatively like a great political thriller. The ensemble of 17 actors (playing 21 different roles) and the detail of the history and situation could have led to a confusing mess but in the masterful hands of Mr. Sher and team it is tightly presented and never stops grabbing your attention. One of the most brilliant parts of the execution is allowing Mona to often turn directly to the audience to explain bits from the history, situation and geography being addressed that really keeps the audience on track. Some of this is done though set designer Michael Yeargan’s very effective use of rear projection that presents (in moving footage and maps) the circumstances going on in the region at the time. This combined with his clean and simple stage make it very easy to follow the intricate material.
One of the most genuine relationships that develop during this process is the unlikely comradery between two characters – Director of Israeli Foreign Ministry Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) and Ahmed Qurie (played by Anthony Azizi). Mr. Aronov steals your attention and focus as the suave and very animated political player. You can feel the energy he projects coming from the stage. Together they form a friendship bond that really brings the intended purpose of these efforts full circle. .
These meetings eventually led to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat signing this peace treaty in the Rose Garden of The White House lawn with Bill Clinton presiding in September of 1993. Of course, today we know that peace did not prevail over time but certainly does give us the hope that someday it is possible especially if approached in a more practical and human way.