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The peace talks that had us on the edge of our seats

A new play chronicles one of history's pivotal moments

    The image is forever etched in the minds of those who recall it: Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands under the watchful eye of President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.

    At the time, it looked like the dawn of a new era but that was not to be. There is, however, a far deeper and more complex story behind that landmark image.

    It involves an unusual couple — both Norwegian diplomats — who secretly got these two unlikeliest of parties to the negotiating table. And it became “the stuff of crackling theatre”, as one reviewer (Ben Brantley, the New York Times) put it.

    The play, Oslo, dramatised by J T Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher, opened on Thursday on Broadway at Vivian Beaumont Theatre at the Lincoln Centre in New York — having played to sell-out houses at the Mitzi E Newhouse Theatre in the city last year.

    The idea for the play began when diplomat and think-tank executive Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (now Norway’s Ambassador to the UK) met Mr Sher through Manhattan’s Chapin School, where both their daughters were students.

    Mr Rod-Larsen told Mr Sher he had a story to tell which might make an interesting drama. Playwright Rogers was brought in, and the result is so dramatic that it is now promoted with a quote from Joe Dziemianowicz’s Daily News review: “Can we make peace with enemies? Oslo gives us hope”.

    Mr Rod-Larsen is a diplomat well-known to this correspondent for nearly 10 years, since he was briefing the UN Security Council on the Second Lebanon War. He spoke then to a very small group of journalists in the Delegates’ Lounge, and gave us his take on Israel’s campaign in Lebanon.

    By contrast, Mr Rogers, an established playwright, had no direct involvement in Middle East politics. But his play has been crafted in such a way that it most artfully portrays not only the tensions of the negotiations, but the interplay of personal relationships as well.

    Mr Rod-Larsen had them living together, breaking bread together, and delving — often most dramatically — into the depths of each other’s souls. It shows the occasional outbursts of profanity, as well as humour.

    What Mr Rogers and Mr Sher achieve with this play — using Mr Rod-Larsen’s material — is nothing short of extraordinary. I well recall several moments during the original production when I turned to my Israeli guest in reaction. We were both speechless.

     

    ‘Oslo’ will run in London at the National Theatre from 5 to 23 September