Fact is often stranger than fiction, or so the saying goes. Sometimes, however, it’s simply more prosaic. Oslo by J. T. Rogers, which opens at the National Theatre ahead of an already-planned West End transfer, is based on the actual events leading up to the historic Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. To that end, it provides an accurate account of behind-closed-doors diplomacy in all its mannered exactitude, including the circuitous and tortured negotiations underlying any decisive outcome. As a play, Oslo suffers from the basic problem that real-life politics is often a characterised by monotony and squabbling, which is why successful dramatisations, such as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, have to rely on fictionalised additions like a convenient end-of-season kidnapping to make a compelling story out of it.
Oslo instead has the feeling of a tale that’s probably incredibly interesting to those intricately involved with it – including perhaps the playwright who met with the real-life Norwegian diplomats featured in the plot – but who unfortunately fail to appreciate that their salivating over the minutiae isn’t shared by those not already part of the club. Despite the plot centring on one of the most important global issues there is – peace in the Middle East – the stakes here feel oddly low. Instead, director Bartlett Sher’s production repeatedly forces tension where it doesn’t organically exist.
Peter John Still’s Anxiety 101 sound design positively insists that those listening should experience feelings of tension, yet ends up as an oddly hollow bid for inspiring real emotion, placed awkwardly on top of the narrative. Attempts at generating pace are mainly realised in repeated scene changes that involve everyone rushing around with furniture on wheels that is, almost inevitably, returned to a near identical layout as before. Most actively distracting, however, is the reliance on SUPERLOUDSWEARING as a method of inspiring, I presume, shock in the audience. As my mother repeatedly told me, there’s nothing impressive about swearing. Far too many scenes rely on generating audience laughter through hearing one of the men in the room either shout the word FUCK or produce oddly-elaborate crude metaphors in what is meant to be the heat of the moment. Well, mother was right: heard one diplomat use a piss metaphor, heard them all. Very quickly, this feels like a lazy attempt to depict discord.
Unfortunately, this avoidance of subtlety pervades other aspects of the play too, most notably the cultural stereotypes served up like Ferrero Rocher balls to those in attendance. “You couldn’t make this up!” says Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) following one of many jokes involving a national cliché. The problem, however, is that it certainly feels like Rogers and Sher have made it up, as certain members of the cast wouldn’t look out of place in an old school opera. Never is this truer than with Tori Grandal (Geraldine Alexander) and Finn Grandal (Howard Ward), the married couple employed as housekeeper and groundsman respectively. Rosy-cheeked and flushed with Nordic joy, they presumably go home each night to their little wooden weathervane, until the cock crows and he pops back out of his door looking like a shoemaker in search of some elves.
It’s a shame that Oslo frequently slides towards broadness, when there are indications of a more nuanced and intriguing piece of theatre nestling under the surface. Projections by 59 Productions are used intermittently throughout, normally to show short clips of news footage. They come into their own, however, during a scene of unusual quietude. Two senior negotiators, one Israeli and one Palestinian, leave the stuffy confines of the stately pile to walk through the snow-covered woods. For this one scene, the projections are used to fully move the events to another space, rather than to illustrate a scenario under discussion. Snow softly falls onto trembling branches as the two men partake in one of the more human moments of the plot when discovering their daughters share the same name.
It’s this balance between the cold, barren world of big man politics and the human impact their decisions have that is missing from most of Oslo. It’s hinted at via the news clips that show the people living in the Middle East, rather than those deciding its fate from afar. If these strands had been consistently tied together, the work has the potential to become a brilliant depiction of the absurd reality of world politics.
Hands up, I’m a bad audience member for this play, which generated a fair amount of audience laughter when I watched it on a Saturday matinee and has already proved a considerable hit in America. The only line I found genuinely funny was the crack made by the lonely communist about the bourgeois construct of family (now there’s a joke for you!).
However, the discomfort I felt when watching it runs deeper than a difference in humour. To find Oslo impressive you need to find the world of diplomacy and politics impressive. Part of me doesn’t doubt that this is a realistic portrayal of what goes on in the ‘corridors of power’: loud men in suits making crass jokes, female officials belittled as ‘someone’s wife’ and occasionally given a brief grope in place of praise, and endless gorging on plate after plate of food. The problem, is that all of this made me more depressed than impressed.
Oslo is on at the National Theatre until 23 September 2017. Click here for more details.