“…it is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”
– Larsen, p. 33 (TCG)
Oslo is a three hour long political thriller that theatricalises the advent of the Oslo Accords, largely through dramatizing the political processes that were navigated by the Israeli government and the PLO, and their facilitators, the Norwegian couple Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul.
It’s either very much your kind of thing, or it’s not.
It is very much my kind of thing.
For those of you that don’t know, I’m a history student. I remember in my university interview I was asked why I wanted to study history, and I answered something along these lines:
What interests me personally, is what happens when the personal collides with the political. In history, this happens most clearly in two ways; with people, and with conflict. There are people throughout history that transcend their politics and becomes icons in their own right; Eva Peron, Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana… there’s lots. People who are loved and hated for being them, instead of for what they stand/stood for. Then there’s conflict – particularly the ethno-political kind. Violence exists in these circumstances superficially because of political positions, but often the hatred is because the other side is them. People pretend it’s about politics, but it’s not, it’s about identity (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, The Middle East…) And that is just endlessly fascinating to me.
Anyway. I hope that doesn’t sound like self-indulgent bullshit. Hopefully it might explain why I was HYPED for Oslo. It literally dramatizes people sat round a table talking about rubbish collections. It gives the illusion of being about politics, but it is ultimately about identity. It is about who these people are, and what they want – and why they want it.
So what exactly is the point of dramatizing political processes? What does it achieve? Is it even a valid form of theatre*?
Political process often comes down to a conversation, a dialogue between two people, maybe an argument – but it’s at a human scale. It allows massive history to be examine on a human, and therefore theatrical level. When it comes down to it, narrative theatre relies on human interaction; when done well, nothing can be as ruthless an exposer of human nature than political process. In Oslo, we’re dealing with tempers that have been fraying for 50 years. It’s no wonder that characters come rushing in at 50mph shouting at the top of their voices – they have reason to. And there’s also the fact that political processes can be fascinating on their own terms. How do you get the PLO and the Israeli Government to agree on… anything? Answering that question is dramatic. There’s an inherent tension. The stakes are far higher than any shitty drawing room drama. There’s not one life/mind at stake, there are millions.
In Oslo, this is communicated through narration. Larsen and Juul talk directly to the audience, largely to cover vast swathes of exposition that would be unbearable if it was embedded in the text proper. It’s a smart choice, and it establishes their perspective all the more firmly – but more on that later. The Norwegian voice is made important, with Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard furnishing their characters with what could be described as ‘accents.’ Apparently they’re Norwegian. I though Stephens had taken RP to new heights before I understood this. ANYWAY, the Norwegian voice is made important – the accents are not necessary, which means they can only exist to further stress the Norwegians removedness from the conflict. But it’s also much simpler; Larsen and Juul facilitate the play as they do the politics.
Rogers succeeds I think in keeping the tension high and the mood taught; the three-hour run time really does race by. Bartlett Sher ensures the pace is quick; it is very much a furniture-moving-on-and-off kind of play. Like Cleansed but without the (onstage at least) violence. He is certainly a director who knows how to use space (it’s not quite as gorgeous to look at as his South Pacific aka my favourite thing ever and the most significant production of a musical this century, but the same thinking underlies it.) His production feels presentational, as opposed to inclusive; perhaps this is a side-effect of moving the production from a thrust space to a proscenium. The presentational nature of it makes it feel slightly filmic, or like a documentary perhaps, there may be a little too much telling instead of showing, but when there’s that much history to cover, I get why. Larsen and Juul’s work culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords; I’d guess that many if not most of the audience at the National knew this in advance… which makes the end of the play really interesting.
Rogers does convey just what makes these people exciting – not necessarily Larsen and Juul, the former in particular is too enigmatic to be drawn in broad strokes – but the supporting players, Ahmed Qurie of the PLO and Uri Savir of the Israeli Foreign Ministry are brought vividly to life by Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti respectively. It’s not an exercise in subtlety; they are a pair of barn-storming performances by actors that were practically spitting nails from all the scenery they were chewing. It’s a masterclass in character acting whenever the two of them are onstage separately, let alone when they’re together. You get why these people are so brilliant to dramatize; their energy is thrilling – and slightly scary.
Okay. The above was written fairly quickly after seeing the play (13/9/17) and I could have left it at that. But there’s something about this play that has been bothering me, and seeing as I’m sat in my uni library surrounded by books on Israeli/Palestinian history, I thought I’d try to write about it. The thing that’s been bothering me is the politics.
More specifically, the play’s perspective.
Right. Rogers is an American, writing about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through a Norwegian perspective, in what seems to be a very English style. Each of those elements come loaded with baggage and significance which seems to have been ignored as the work is understood as remarkably ‘neutral.’
Firstly, the American thing. Bart Sher knows Larsen; Their daughters went to school together. He introduced Rogers to Larsen. It would be overly cynical of me to suggest this meant there was any sort of agenda other than this is a really good story… but it lingers in your head somewhat.
Out of interest, when was the last time an Israeli or a Palestinian got their play produced on a national stage? One that deals with their own histories? I’m not a fan of the whole ‘not yours to write about’ school of thought, but it does seem strange that the Americans (and the English) seem to raise their voices loudest. I bring up the English style, by which I mean Rogers has (by his own admission) studied David Hare’s political work; the echoes of Stuff Happens can be seen quite clearly. It’s a theatre that puts politicians onstage, rather than those affected by their actions. It both holds them accountable, and humanises them; the latter having the potential to be a major problem when the politicians are almost beyond politics – when they’re hated for being them. Is that fair? Not only to the audience, but to the people represented?
Sher genuinely seems to understand Norway as a neutral channel; a way to explore the conflict without, as Rogers has said, the baggage of “he said, she said.” It allows for – what was an initially American audience – to come at it from a different angle. Norway was in an unusual position in that they were officially neutral with both sides, but they could never publicly endorse the talks Larsen and Juul were facilitating for fear of upsetting the Americans… so…. Neutral? There does seem to be a conflation with ‘do they have any interests at stake,’ and ‘are they neutral.’
I’d bet that Americans in general have stronger feelings about Israel and Palestine than Brits anyway, so perhaps that impression of neutrality was more important than exploring where the conflict was actually at; the intifada is still ongoing, though less horrendous, the Soviet Union has just collapsed and the PLO has lost its main sponsor, and Yitzhak Rabin was recently re-elected on a platform advocating peace. Some of this context is dropped into the conversation, much is not. The PLO were willing to try anything to keep their campaign on the world agenda at a time when it was in danger of falling off, and moreover were desperate to be included in any talks they could, having been excluded from the talks in Madrid.** There’s something of a false equivalency in how the two sides are portrayed, I feel. But perhaps that’s inevitable. Perhaps all of this is inevitable.
Is neutrality actually important? I honestly don’t know. Could you do a play that was massively anti-Israel at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain? Or a play that denies the existence of Palestine? I doubt it. Funding would get pulled so quick – in America your whole subscriber base would dissolve in an instant. (though Lincoln Center has members, not subscribers…) It was only at the start of my second year of uni I managed to banish the idea that history is about finding some sort of objective truth or fact – it’s nothing of the sort. You make your argument, and you back it up. You can challenge it, you can throw stuff at it and see if anything sticks, but you’re never trying to be objective, necessarily. I don’t feel this kind of theatre should be any different.
What am I trying to say… Something along the lines of “Oslo is not a straightforward political thriller.” It’s not as simple as to say that Larsen and Juul facilitated conversation between two sides of a conflict; one of those sides was incredibly tired of war, and the other had lost a huge amount of funding. To impose a further morality on that seems artificial.
And again, I don’t mean to take away from what they did. It’s bloody genius what they did; as Rogers has said, it feels impossible now but it felt impossible then. Perhaps that idea of hope, of seeing deeply intelligent people try and communicate across vast historical and political divides matters in 2017, when the political landscape is populated by anti-intellectual twonks.
*all theatre is ‘valid,’ twat. Just some of it’s good and some of it’s shit.
**the programme essays for Oslo are particularly good, and much of this can be gleaned from them. Definitely worth a read.
This is also particularly interesting, and it’s where I’ve sourced most of my ‘Sher said’ ‘Rogers has said’ comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jgM093MhW8&t=901s
Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.