By Tulis McCall
OSLO, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, is the kind of brilliant production that will leave you a teensie bit worse off than it found you. It will leave you a bit rattled. It will leave you with new skin and and refined eyesight. You will look at political events (as if you had a chance NOT to) with a more critical eye. When one hand is waving to you, you will wonder what the other hand is doing. While the U.S. Political conventions are being spoon fed to us, you will hear yourself saying, “What are they NOT telling us?” All because you will have spent three very extraordinary hours listening to a team of excellent actors spin the tale of the funny thing that happened on the way to the Oslo Accord. How many people were willing to fall on their swords in order that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat would shake hands in the White House Rose Garden.
Quite a few, as it turns out. Starting with Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), Director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), an Official in the Foreign Ministry. Of Norway. Not from anywhere CLOSE to the Middle East. The year was 1993, and these two, on a research trip to Israel, got it into their heads that if a couple of well-chosen Israelis and Palestinians were brought to a neutral location and placed in a room with a table, chairs cigarettes and coffee, they would emerge with a peace agreement. Of course it would take a little time…
For Larsen and Juul this all started in 1992 while Juul was on assignment in Cairo. Larsen had gone with her. They visited Israel and were smitten by the people and the land itself. The Gaza Strip tugged at them. While visiting there one day they witnessed a riot. In the exact center of it they saw 2 boys, one Israeli and one Palestinian in a face off. Both armed with rocks and both wearing the same expression that said, “I do not want to be here.” And in that moment Larsen and Juul were transformed from bystanders to intermediaries. In that moment they changed from hopeless believed that they could do something to change the circumstances.
In 1992 it was illegal for any Israeli official to speak with any member of the PLO. Problems contain solutions, and in this case it was the selection Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes), an economics professor from Haifa, as the Israeli representative. For the PLO it was Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the PLO finance Minister who was in London, across the street from where the “official” talks were being held because he was not allowed at the “official” talks. The two men were brought to a London hotel, settled in separate rooms, and at a designated signal sent solo into a third. Qurie confessed that this is the first time he will meet an Israeli face to face. We presume the same was true for Hirschfeld.
There is no interference. The men are left alone for hours. And they do indeed reach an agreement. Of sorts. The channel was opened.
But this is where the trapeze like trail is exposed to light and, therefore, the scrutiny of more eyes. In the background there is the escalating madness of events in Israel. People are shot, hacked to death, bombed. The Gaza Strip is sealed. To paraphrase Beckett – these negotiators live out the “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” syndrome. The points of the agreement get more specific and delicate. The risk become greater. The possibility of failure increases exponentially.
The glue holding this thread of hope above the water line is Larsen and Juuul. Although they never appear to engage in the negotiations, they are the midwives, coddling, engaging, flattering and sometimes outright lying in order to keep the movement forward, In order to keep the possibility of peace present.
It is determined that a higher up is needed on the Israeli side and Uri Savir ((Michael Aronov) slides into the negotiations like a spider on ice. But, as if on command, the DOP (Declaration of Principles) takes on mind of its own and whispers, “Hold. Hold. hold.” J.T. Rogers’ text and Bartlett Sher’s direction guide this extraordinary cast (although a few accents are wildly inconsistent) through a verbal and incident packed obstacle course that, although we observers are removed by time and distance, is not only comprehendible, it is urgent and arresting. We not only understand, we feel.
It is no spoiler alert to say that this secret 9 month negotiation resulted in the Oslo Accord. It is also no spoiler to say that the subsequent failure of same, and the resulting state of affairs in Israel is spread across the headlines until we are numb to the devastation. Oslo will bring you back around to where you do not want to be: thinking of these people as your family. As Larsen says, sometimes we are the pigeon, sometimes we are the statue. We, in fact, are never just observers.
Cast Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheisser, Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo and T. Ryder Smith
Sets Michael Yearn, Costumes Catherine Zuber, Lighting Donald Holder
Presented by Lincoln Center – Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St., 212-239-6200, tickets: lct.org