What we learn from ‘Oslo’
If you want to see the Middle East that could have been — and, with any hope, could still be — you will have to wait for another production of “Oslo.”
J.T. Rogers’ drama of diplomacy just closed its brief, sold-out and critically acclaimed run at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, which is too bad — unless it is on its way to Los Angeles.
The play focuses on the secretive 1993 talks that Norwegian officials conducted between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Those chaotic meetings, which led to the 1995 Oslo Accords, provide a portrait of deceit, frustration, recklessness and, ultimately, hope.
Jefferson Mays leads the cast of talented performers. Playing the Norwegian academic Terje Roed-Larsen, he introduces the audience to his new diplomatic model, which promises to upend foreign policymaking forever. The old method, he says, involved two sides laying out their grievances through entrenched modes of protocol and careful bureaucracy. But the innovation stems from seeing governments as made up of people, not systems. This new theory demands radical transparency from both parties, that both sides present and negotiate their points in a loose and unstructured way, without mediation.
The clever irony is that transparency is nowhere to be found — at least for the public. The first act begins in fog. Director Bartlett Sher (who also directs this year’s Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) coats his stage with the stuff; actors enter even before the house lights go down. A cloak of secrecy swallows these players, and we, the audience, must focus to discover their motivations. For the Norwegians, the talks offer a chance to prove their merit on the world stage. For the Israelis, they are an opportunity to obtain security in an increasingly tense region. And for the Palestinians, they bring a chance to return to their homeland — or what’s left of it, as they point out on occasion.
Married to Terje is Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s Foreign Ministry. She falls for the Middle East and its complexity, just as she falls for Terje’s diplomatic concepts. After wrangling her bosses in the ministry to their side, Mona proceeds to arrange these diplomatic talks to take place in a remote castle — far away from the prying eyes of the media and, God forbid, the Americans. Jennifer Ehle instills Mona with wit and verve, the only female lead in a cast of rowdy men with important things to say. Mona acts as a narrator, lifting her voice to the audience to detail global events that shaped the negotiations. Very often, she is accompanied by projections and superimposed text, allowing the audience to keep track of the complicated timeline. As she notes with weary gravitas, “Keep in mind: What you are about to see took place in only nine months.”
The Israeli side features Michael Aronov as Uri Savir, a swaggering official in the Foreign Ministry who reports to Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (a cautious Adam Dannheisser), who himself reports to Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes). Uri can sense Terje has more than just his academic bona fides on the line — his ego is wrapped up in these talks, as well. But hesitations aside, Uri realizes he must argue with and cajole the enemy, face to face — the first time he has done so in his career. Two professors from Haifa University — Yair Hirschfeld (Oreskes again) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins) bring a touch of Borscht Belt humor to the proceedings. As the Palestinian envoy suggests, “These two are the Israeli Laurel and Hardy.”
From the Palestinians, Ahmed Qurie (Abu Ala to his friends) decides he can no longer stand idly by and watch his people suffer in refugee camps. As finance minister for the PLO, he risks his life by negotiating on Arafat’s behalf. Anthony Azizi injects the role with great dignity and courage; he recognizes the momentous changes these accords could bring for his people but maintains a distrust of the government that represents them. An undeveloped conflict within the second act suggests that Qurie may have kept Arafat in the dark through much of these talks.
Alongside Qurie is Hassan Asfour, a Russian-educated Palestinian with a weakness for Norwegian waffles and Marxism. Played by Dariush Kashani, Asfour retains a dry distance from the proceedings, only opening his mouth to share clear-eyed truth, or to eat more Norwegian waffles. Despite his revulsion toward Israel and all it represents, he can’t help saying to an Israeli negotiator, “You are my first Jew.”
To which the Israeli says, “I hope I’m not too stringy.”
What animates their dialogue — indeed, the whole play — is the idea of seeing one’s opponent for the first time. This is the kind of revolution Terje sought to bring into foreign diplomacy talks. Time and again, animosity crumbles once these men talk of their daughters, their fathers, their dreams, their land. They joke with one another, too, and Rogers instills the drama with bright flashes of humor to humanize these officials.
By the play’s end, although Terje and Mona debate the effectiveness of the accords and wonder aloud how long-lasting its effects will be, the historic roles that these inexperienced men and women played are plain to see. Whatever the future may hold, Rogers’ must-see play affirms the bravery of men who fought to see their enemies as partners.
ADI ESHMAN is a playwright in Brooklyn.