Life & Culture

A diplomat and a TV producer plot a comic end to conflict

Daniel Taub and Dan Patterson discuss their new play, Winner's Curse


Here is an intriguing premise for a play: negotiating teams from two countries attempt to forge a deal that averts war but allows each side to claim they have won, and in which the audience play an interactive part as honest (or mischievous) brokers.

However, it would be wrong to assume that Winner’s Curse, in which the countries in question are located in Eastern Europe, are inspired by Ukraine and Russia.

Nor would it be right to think that just because the play is written by the former Israeli ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, who was also deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, that the work lifts the lid on what went on behind closed doors in those secretive meetings.

But it would be right to intuit that the Finchley-born former Israeli diplomat has deployed insights in his play that only a key player in international conflict resolution would have access to, and that with TV producer Dan Patterson involved, and a cast led by Clive Anderson, Patterson’s long-time collaborator on such shows as Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Winner’s Curse is going to be a right laugh.

Both men took a moment in their schedules — Taub in Israel and Patterson in Los Angeles, where he is filming a new American series of Whose Line — to discuss the play before joining Jez Bond’s production during rehearsals at the Park Theatre, where the play opens next week.

Daniel Taub
I spent quite a lot of time in negotiating rooms in the Middle East, then later studying and teaching negotiation theory, and it occurred to me that creating a play about the dilemmas while negotiating would be interesting.

John Nathan
This isn’t your first script is it?

I’ve written for television [Israeli drama series Ha-Chatzer set in a Hasidic community]. But I sort of got stuck [with the play], so I turned to my mentor, Dan Patterson.

Dan Patterson
I remember Daniel talking about the play and saying, “I want to include these great exercises with the audience but I don’t know how to get them in.” And I think I said, “Just get the characters to suddenly turn to the audience and say, ‘Well here is a dilemma. What happens next.?’”

And when Daniel explained these negotiation exercises you can do with an audience I thought, that is great. I haven’t seen a play that has this extra USP [of audience participation] in this way.

It was the games that made me think, “This is going to be really different.”

DT It’s framed by a senior diplomat’s speech…

DP That’s Clive Anderson

DT...who is getting this peace prize for his involvement in a peace negotiation many years earlier. And in the course of this speech we see acted out the actual negotiation between two rival states.

DP But let’s not overplay Clive’s interaction with the audience. They’re great but there is a narrative going on. You care about what is going on in this play. You care which side is going to win. You care about the dynamic of the negotiation.

DT Yes we have real live, breathing characters who are not just cyphers for the game. We have a drama that hopefully stands on its own legs, that has comedy. But when there is a particular dilemma then there is are also interactive moments with the audience.

JN So I know the cast also includes Nichola McAuliffe and Barrie Rutter, but who are the characters?

DT There is a cynical, jaded, diplomat negotiator; a young man fresh from Harvard, who is keen to try out all these new negotiating theories, an ex-military bluff and a let’s-wrap-this-up-by-lunchtime American mediator.
But it turns out the most savvy negotiator is not even sitting at the table.
JN Would it be wrong to think your Middle East experience is reflected in this play?

DT Look it is true that I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Palestinian partners and travelling to other conflict zones. But this is clearly not an attempt to represent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These dilemmas, strange dynamics and questions of loyalty arise in any international negotiation.

DP It’s so beautifully set where it is I think it’s very much it’s own living, breathing thing. It’s not like [the play] Oslo where you’re going “this is a thing that happened.” You’re not going to walk away thinking, “This is Israel Palestine.” And I think it’s the better for it.

DT I hope that people will actually leave with a few insights or tools that might be helpful in their own lives.

JN What, like marriage counselling?

DT I don’t want to say come and see Winner’s Curse and then think that you won’t need a lawyer for your separation…

JN But…?

DT The narratives we tell ourselves are important – both on a national level and on a personal level. In negotiation people talk about the need to write the victory speech of the other side.
It doesn’t mean it has to be as good as your victory speech but they have to go home with something.

JN Wow, that’s a brilliant exercise in empathy.

DT It’s actually not in the play.

DP It’s not too late, Daniel!

JN Dan, it’s been said that your love of games started at Habonim. Is that true?

DP I think people slightly exaggerate how much Habonim led to Whose Line, but it did a little bit. I’ve always loved parlour games.

In Habonim you were trying to put over a tochnit — an educational programme — in an entertaining way to grab kids.
And there was another show I did called Trust Us With Your Life where you had to sort of interview someone and then improvise their life in front of them.
But Daniel takes it to another level.

JN How did you two meet?

DP When Daniel was the ambassador over here and there was a [Jewish event], Daniel would use the opportunity to say something pithy with a lesson in it and make it funny.
I remember a UJIA thing where we had Matthew Gould, the [Jewish] British ambassador in Israel and Daniel, and I said we’re blessed with two people who are great talkers and have a great sense of humour. And we sort of hit it off a bit.

DT For me Dan was this heroic figure — a Jewish boy made unbelievably good in television. I think the first time we met was in Limmud long before I came to London [as ambassador] actually.

JN So this is a rare case of two very different skills combining to make create something different and new for the stage [although Dan Patterson did co-write the stage comedy The Duck House].

DP It’s that but you just have to take your hat off to this guy and go, “He’s a very, very clever man!”

‘Winner’s Curse’ is at the Park Theatre until March 11.

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