My Theatre

21 September 2017

Oslo at the National Theatre

By // Theatre (London)

photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

I like the elephantine plays. That’s why I went to this, and because of the Tony, and because of the premise. A combo of all. What else do I have to go on? Maybe I should read scripts before applying for press tickets. Maybe.

I don’t think Oslo is that elephantine, actually. And it certainly doesn’t justify the use of the MASSIVE Lyttelton. Maybe I should have given Angels more credit, because at least that never felt so cosmically tiny — I mean, it did confine the action to rooms and gimmicky walks-across-stage, but still, it tamed the space. Here, the Big Themes seem Lilliputian.

You’d think Oslo is huge, though. A 3-hour, big-dramatis-personae behemoth about the secret talks between Israeli and PLO officials in 1993 that precipitated the ill-fated Oslo Peace Accords. And Tony-award-winning, although we know awards mean nothing (*cough* Cursed Child *cough*).

But Oslo is small, which is no awful thing. This is a play about men (yes, almost to a man, men) with a gulf between them, funneled into an intimate space to hash out one of international politics’ most intractable dilemmas. It’s a movement from distance to intimacy, but Bartlett Sher’s direction doesn’t reflect this at all. The actors spread out, mannered, against Michael Yeargan’s basic, faux-European-trendy old-Norwegian drawing room set, which transforms through a series of pretty execrable video projections on the walls into various locales for the play.

Did I mention the Lyttelton is big? Taking 5 seconds to stroll off-stage is a feature of this production, but nothing’s made of it. It’s awkward. The way the bit roles take and put on furniture is awkward, but not the ‘bilateral negotiations are awkward’ kind of a way. At least the Lincoln Centre had a thrust. God, is it that hard to create intimacy in the Lyttelton? I know there’s no proscenium, but… regardless… something… anything…

So this is a smaller, hotter play than I anticipated. The meaty scenes, the ones that don’t feature the Norwegian Foreign Ministry officials sweating over events much grander than themselves, have four people at the negotiating table: Ahmed Qurie and Hassan Asfour for the PLO, with a succession of Israelis gradually increasing in bigwigginess for the other side. The drama, as you’d expect, is found in the crucible of compromise, and even in the fact that these high-ranking people are meeting their official enemies for the first time (they mention how, then, it was illegal for any member of the Israeli government to meet with the PLO); it’s a hard time for these men, especially when they get down to practical policy implementations, like border arrangements, and to the hard symbolic issue of the PLO recognising Israeli’s legitimacy.

From that explanation, it might seem like the play I thought it was, the slow-burning, intrigue-weaving subtle power exchange of David and Goliath with words traded above military force. Instead, Oslo exists in two simple registers: the chummy, plummy cordiality of the ministry’s hosting and the firebrand shouts of tribal disagreement. That’s it. No finer points, and any bonding between the parties is done over the clearly signposted, universal language of food and jokes, although this being said, the joke-telling, which is self-deprecating on both sides, is the best of the play. The closest thing to liveness.

Everything else is Brook’s Dead Theatre. Is there was subtlety in the script, it’s washed out by the declamations drawn out by a stage too large for the play it hosts. (And if you’d allow me to be Billington, I would have loved a deeper exploration of the claims to territory, rather than the it’s-mine-no-it’s-mine beat over and over, and of the dissatisfaction of the Israeli underlings with the way the governmental hierarchy buries their contributions.)

There are writer’s niggles, of course — the kind of thing that no-one cares for besides me, but since no-one reads this besides me, I’ll go on. I hate narration in plays when it covers for a lack of imaginative storytelling. It is, truly, the V.O. of plays. Mona, the ministry official who masterminded the talks along with her husband Jorgen, starts telling us in direct address who the people we’re seeing for the first time are, but it’s barely consistent, and we’d probably be better off working out the connections for ourselves. And you know why J.T. Rogers, the playwright, has Mona do this? It’s because he’s embarrassed by the lack of female agency, and it’s really OBVIOUS, and baffling too, because there’s clearly a personal dimension with Mona and Jorgen’s marriage that for some reason Rogers didn’t choose to explore. Just, why? Also, the lame communist jokes, why?

None of the acting is special save for Nabil Elouahabi as Asfour and Philip Arditti as Director-General Savir. The Norwegians, played mostly by English actors, should have opted for RP: the Scandinavian butchering isn’t pretty, and I think we’re advanced enough in Anglo-America to use our imaginations. Or are we? With the painful literalism of everything else, I don’t know.

Anyway, hopefully to a smaller space (I’ve never been), I’ve been told to tell you all that Oslo will transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre on 2 October, and play until 30 December.

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