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Playwright J T Rogers: "I’m constantly aware I know nothing."

As the Broadway hit Oslo comes to London, John Nathan meets the man who put the 1993 Middle East peace talks on stage.

    J T Rogers
    J T Rogers Photo: Rebecca Ashley

    I may be going out on a limb here but if J T Rogers’s keenly anticipated, award-winning political thriller about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict causes offence after it opens at the National Theatre next week, my guess is that the protests are more likely to come from the pro-Palestinian side.

    The play is called Oslo, and is named after the peace accord that climaxed with that triumphant, historic, now somewhat hollow, image of Bill Clinton embracing Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.

    Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the East Room of the White House, as President Clinton looks on
    Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the East Room of the White House, as President Clinton looks on Photo: Doug Mills/AP

    Rogers is an American writer of complex political plays — notably about Rwandan democracy in the case of The Overwhelming, and America’s involvement in Afghanistan in Blood and Gifts. He’s a genial, self-effacing chap of obvious intelligence who modestly claims no well of wisdom when it comes to understanding possibly the world’s longest running and bitterest conflict.

    “I’m constantly aware I know nothing,” he says when we meet at the National Theatre a few days before opening night. This is a very wise thing to say when it comes to the Middle East.

    The play’s success on Broadway has changed his life. He’s no longer “deathly poor”. Not long ago, he and his photographer wife and their son, now aged 14, had to move out of gentrified Brooklyn because they couldn’t afford the rent there any more. But the huge acclaim for Oslo has resulted in a commission for a film version and a new work for Netflix. Life isn’t a gravy train but at least he no longer lives in what he describes as a state of financial crisis.

    Rogers came to the Gordian knot of international politics via an unconventional route. The daughter of his director, Bartlett Sher, went to school with the daughter of Norwegian diplomat Terje Rod-Larson who, with his wife Mona Juul (also a diplomat and now Norway’s Ambassador to London) were the couple who engineered the secret peace negotiations. Sher introduced Rogers to Rod-Larsen and the result is a play that, when it opened off-Broadway in New York, confounded fears that it would enrage the theatre-going public.

    “I was very anxious about the combustibility of it,” remembers Rogers. “I assumed there would be controversy only because someone would be enraged that I had allowed the ‘other side’ to have their say. The Death of Klinghoffer [an opera about the Palestine Liberation Organisation murder of a Jewish wheelchair-bound cruise passenger] had just been staged at the Met, which caused a furore. Protesters were being dragged out of the theatre. That was just six months before we opened at the Lincoln Centre.”

    Rogers would also have known of the huge row that accompanied another play about the same conflict, in 2006. Written by the late actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner (now editor of the Guardian) it was called My Name Is Rachel Corrie and was inspired by an American pro-Palestinian campaigner who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. It was pulled from the New York Theatre Workshop’s schedule to cries of censorship on one side of the debate and relief from those who saw it as anti-Israel agitprop. Those arguments are now being replayed with a forthcoming revival of the play at the Young Vic. In fact, the two shows will be playing at the same time when Oslo transfers to the West End later this month. They represent two very different approaches. Rogers understandably hesitates to speak about the Rachel Corrie play because he hasn’t seen it yet. But he knows about it “exhaustively”.

    “That was a play which I think all sides agreed, whether they liked it or not, is a play that had a political point of view. I don’t think that’s wrong,” he says. The question it prompts in the unbiased viewer, he adds, is “‘Do I think that this political view is true, or a left-wing antisemitic lie?’”

    But the responses to that play in New York and London speak volumes about the differences between the prevailing opinions in the two cities.

    “In New York, there is a particular political point of view that I would say is 180 degrees different from London. In London, it seems to me, the default position is a passionate defence of the Palestinian people and the belief in their cause, in opposition to actions of the Israeli government. In New York, it is a passionate support of the Israeli people, which sometimes is viewed as the government and sometimes not, with almost no voice or input from the Palestinians.”

    This is probably at least partly why My Name Is Rachel Corrie was favourably received in London while in New York it met a hostile reception.

    But, unlike Oslo, it never prompted consensus from people on opposing sides of the argument about the value of the play.

    “There was an interesting phenomenon that was very moving to me,” says Rogers. “When we were doing Oslo in New York I was contacted by many Israelis — strangers — saying: ‘Thank you for writing this play. It really allowed me to see the other side,’ and, in some cases: ‘It made me re-evaluate.’ The response from the Palestinian citizens was: ‘Thank you so much for not making fun of us and for not making us villains.’”

    So, if comparisons are to be made between the two plays, it seems reasonable not just to ask whether the plays are any good, but also how well the subject itself is being served; whether they evoke pure emotion or something that is closer to understanding.

    “I’m interested in political theatre not as agitprop cause-based theatre,” says Rogers, although the key is not necessarily, as critics of the Rachel Corrie play have said, to be even-handed.

    “What theatre does that journalism doesn’t do is that, in journalism, you lay out the facts; you explain this is what happened so the reader can be informed.

    “But theatre doesn’t do that. What the theatre does is to keep asking questions. It doesn’t provide answers. So, as a playwright, I want to show more and more complicated voices of people who aren’t normally on the stage. And then I’m going to put them on the stage as flesh-and-blood human beings.

    “The anxiety was that people would get upset simply because of the theatrical act of putting everyone on the stage and humanising them,” says Rogers about the run up to the play’s premiere in New York. Such was the concern that the theatre had contingency plans for violence.

    “We had a security and code-word for the actors if they felt unsafe on stage, and an ‘active shooter’ policy. So as well as the normal feelings of being proud of the work that was going to be seen for the first time, there was also this sense of ‘What is going to happen?’’’

    Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, and Jefferson Mays in the Broadway production of Oslo.
    Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, and Jefferson Mays in the Broadway production of Oslo. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

    What happened was that the play went to Broadway and won the Tony award for Best Play. It may have helped that Rogers is not a Jew, an Arab, an Israeli or a Palestinian. “I have had a number of Jewish playwriting colleagues say to me ‘Only you could have written this play because you’re not Jewish.’ It was meant as praise. I don’t know if it’s true.”

    A tad self-deprecatingly he describes his background as: “California-born, WASP and white middle-class.” He is the son of an artist on his mother’s side and a professor of South East Asian politics on his father’s side.

    “I grew with my mother campaigning for the left and my father being a politics professor. So this was the dinner-table conversation,” he says, which possibly explains the skill with which Rogers articulates argument for the stage: “You have no control over how the play will be received. The only thing you can do is try to make the work as complicated as you can. If there’s anything that I’m proud of about the work it’s that the Israeli and the Palestinian characters are as flawed as the Norwegian characters. And whether it’s the finance minister of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or the under-secretary of the Israeli Foreign service, you will hopefully fall in love with both of them.”

     

    ‘Oslo’ is at the National Theatre, September 5 to 26, and then at the Harold Pinter Theatre, September 30 to January 6.

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