When plays (or movies or TV series) depict historical events, their directors often prioritize the need to “get it right” and in doing so, mistake a dramatic event for dramatic storytelling. In those cases, the result can feel too heavy on historical detail, like an in-depth newspaper article whose purpose is to inform rather than stir emotion.
“Oslo” – the world-premiere play at Lincoln Center Theatre that depicts the 1993 Oslo Accords – was solidly in that camp for me. The material itself is fascinating: Oslo was the first, and so far the last, peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. It recognized the legitimacy of Israel as a country and the right of Palestinians to have their own state and government. Both are notions that each side was loathe to acknowledge about the other, so the signing of the agreement had, and still has, great significance even as hostility between Israeli and Palestinian leadership continues to mount.
“Oslo” is the kind of play that I hope thousands of people see, just so they know that a peace agreement happened between these two parties. Given the positive reviews that the show received, including the New York Times’ “Critic’s Pick” stamp, it’s likely “Oslo” will have a healthy run. The rave reviews are also a good sign for director Bart Sher, an extraordinary talent whose new revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” – also running this season and hopefully for years to come – is one of the most perfect productions I’ve ever seen. Every round of good press that Sher receives opens the door for his next opportunity.
In developing “Oslo” for the stage, Sher became friends with the pair of Norwegian diplomats (the married couple Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen) who spearheaded the Oslo Accords, and his love for them is evident in their portrayal onstage. What astonishes about Oslo, beyond the peace treaty itself, is that two diplomats from Norway with no political or personal investment in the Middle East would have the conviction to take on a project of this magnitude.
“Oslo” is not Sher’s best work in my opinion. He lets J.T. Roger’s script go on and on in talky scenes and long character descriptions. The dramatic tension builds but v-e-r-y slowly. Yet, his work with Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays as Mona and Terje is wonderful. Mona clearly runs the peace operation and Terje is comically clumsy, but both maintain the certainty that they’re doing the right thing by encouraging representatives from the Israeli government and from the PLO (the Palestinian leadership at the time) to keep talking until they reach a compromise.
Mona and Terje's most clever idea is to set up a living room space where the representatives would put aside their differences and enjoy food and drinks together. The approach is as simple as it is effective: eating together is a catalyst to creating a shared experience. Shared experiences are the bases of friendship.
“Oslo” has a great deal of overlap with “Camp David” – another play that focuses on an Israeli peace process. In both examples, an outside party brings two opposing sides together and motivates them to keep the conversation going even as each side wants to abandon it. In both examples, the leaders involved are hardly perfect negotiators for peace. It’s essential to remember when thinking about today’s leaders in the Middle East and the seemingly impossible odds of reaching any sort of agreement today.
In one scene, Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), Oslo’s key Israeli and Palestinian negotiators take a walk and admit their mutual excitement about reaching a peace agreement. Uri then says something like, “Now you go to Arafat and tell him that I said, ‘Go fuck yourself’ and I’ll tell Rabin that you said the same thing.” Uri and Ahmed acknowledge that their leaders don't want to come across as weak by negotiating. To me, that was the single perfect scene in the play. Though the play drags, it's worth seeing. And it's worth knowing in this devastating time in history that people who fundamentally disagree can share a meal together and begin to see each other as human.
photo credit: T. Charles Erickson and Sara Krulwich