Great theater requires high stakes conflict. In Oslo, J.T. Roger’s tour-de-force, cross-cultural opus now playing at Lincoln Center Theater, there is no shortage of conflict. In a play largely made up of talks between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, this is to be expected. The conflict is built in. But what makes Oslo a remarkable stand out is that despite being riddled with conflict, its focus is on resolution.
In a playwright’s note found in the program J.T. Rogers describes how he first came up with the idea for Oslo. After a performance of Blood and Gifts, his previous production at Lincoln Center, Rogers had drinks with a Norwegian diplomat and friend of Bartlett Sher, Oslo’s masterful director. At the time, Rogers knew about the Oslo Accords, the first ever peace agreements between Israel and Palestine, but the diplomat shed light on the “backstory to this momentous event.” Highly secret meetings orchestrated by the Norwegian government. In Oslo Rogers sets out to tell was he describes as the “hidden history that lies behind a public history.” The result is thrilling historical fiction and, with the help of a brilliant cast and creative team, Rogers triumphs in his work.
At the center of the hidden history are two Norwegians: Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen. The real-life couple acted as the composers of the international orchestration of meetings and did so with cunning, perseverance and most importantly, neutrality. Oslo gives credit (where credit is most certainly due) to the pair for their integral part in arranging the ongoing meetings between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Veteran stage actress Jennifer Ehle gives Juul a delicate yet fastidious grace while Jefferson Mays’ Rod-Larsen is brilliant, delivering a spastic and committed, all-or-nothing approach to diplomacy. Both received 2017 Tony nominations for their work. Also nominated for his performance is Michael Aronov, a comedic stand out who plays “rockstar” Uri Savir, Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Aronov shines in the peacemaking role adding humor and energy to the ultra-serious subject matter. Director Bartlett Sher, also nominated, deserves added praise for taking such a heavy text, one that spans both time and place (as well as hefty subject matter), and transforming it into an incredibly engaging, fast-paced peace odyssey.
The story moves quickly. It is a debate. There are two sides and each have strongly held beliefs. Rod-Larsen was integral in the Oslo Accords due to his outside of the box approach to negotiations. His method is to settle each isolated point of an argument before being allowed to move on to the next. We see this play out onstage over a year’s time. Each side makes a point, filled with strong rhetoric, then the negotiations begin. Eventually one side budges. It is fascinating to watch. As the negotiations develop, friendships do as well. Common ground is found through words. Overall the production was riveting. It has been too long that a show on Broadway clocking in at nearly three hours leaves the audience wanting more. Oslo is a must-see.