Update: After runs on Broadway and at the National Theatre, "Oslo" is moving to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London for a limited run. Information is available at https://seatplan.com/london/oslo
NEW YORK – This summer, Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater presented a play of substance and stature, “Oslo,” by J.T. Rogers. It is brilliantly acted by its two extraordinary leading players, Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, and a large, fine supporting cast, and staged with understanding and forceful direction by the experienced hand of Bartlett Sher.
“Oslo” is a drama of a political event that occurred back in 1993 when Israel’s Prime Minister Yitztak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) leader Yasser Arafat met on the White House lawn with President Bill Clinton, signed a peace agreement and shook hands. (The image of these three leaders on a sunny day in Washington still sticks in my head.) The intention was to end decades of Middle East fighting between Israel and Palestine, though sadly the peace didn’t last long. Soon, the process of the Oslo Agreement became unhinged, leaving the United States and other allies having to again try to mend Middle East conflicts, which in many ways still exist today.
Palestinians had been warring since the creation of Israel in 1948, after the end of World War II. When the United Nations apportioned an area for Israel out of the former British holdings of the trans-Jordan region between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, some 700,000 Islamic Palestinians found themselves displaced. Palestinians and their Arab supporters in Egypt, Syria and Jordan immediately went to war with the new State of Israel in 1948, and Israel won, validating its right to exist.
The play “Oslo” had a serendipitous beginning when director Mr. Sher met a Norwegian couple, Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, who were responsible for the Oslo Accords. He thought their tale of orchestrating the talks could make an interesting dramatic work. He also thought of playwright Rogers, who had written plays about international politics like “Blood and Gifts,” concerning the Afghanistan-Soviet conflict, which he had staged at Lincoln Center in 2011.
Ms. Juul became acquainted with the P.L.O.-Israeli cause when she was a Norwegian diplomat in Cairo and her husband was working in sociology there. They got to know Arafat’s brother Fathi, and learned about the problems of the Palestinians in occupied territories. Back in Oslo, Ms. Juul worked with the Norwegian foreign minister about setting up a dialogue between the P.L.O. and Israel. She learned that the P.L.O. wanted to have contact with Israel and, in 1991, there was an American-led process started in Washington. But since the P.L.O. was thought of as a terrorist organization by most of the world, not much was happening on that front.
She decided that to get Israel and the P.L.O. talking, she must set up secret meetings between the two factions with no publicity. Ms. Juul and her husband would be the facilitators. The gatherings would be called “back channel” talks. The group would meet in Oslo.
The audience never gets to hear what went on behind the conference room doors. We get narration from Ms. Juul and, of course, pick up on the flavor and some flare-ups of the participants during drinks and dinner. Yitztak Rabin and Yasser Arafat never appear. The talented cast gives us various impersonations of the characters they represent.
After the conferences, the Israelis traveled back to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the P.L.O. negotiators to Tunis, all carrying messages back and forth. According to Ms. Juul, this went on for 13 or 14 gatherings between 1992 an 1993 before the Oslo Accords were finalized.
After the plan fell apart in 1995, an Israeli radical, angry over the Oslo agreement, assassinated Rabin. Palestinian rejectionists thought Arafat had betrayed them and began new attacks against Israel. Then came the 2006 Lebanon War.
These events caused the Israelis to elect the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not in favor of the Oslo Accords and put no effort into trying to implement their terms. Even today, he is distrustful of a recognized state.
As a play, “Oslo” doesn’t have a dramatic catharsis because the peace agreement didn’t take. As with the audience, the Norwegian couple is left on a perch, wondering what could have happened if the accords had been accepted.
One comes away from “Oslo” with a sense of the great hope and desire of the negotiators who went to Oslo. It also shows what a single Norwegian political couple, Ms. Juul and Mr. Rød-Larsen, could do when they took a chance, pursued their vision and tried to make peace in the Middle East in their own quiet way. There is something heroic in that effort.
“Oslo” finished its run in August at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, but will move next March to the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center for an extended run.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.