Broadway’s ‘Oslo’ captures behind-the-scenes drama of painstaking diplomacy

June 9, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
“Oslo,” a Tony-nominated Broadway drama, takes a deep look at the secret negotiations that went into the historic Middle East peace accords, and their relevance in today’s world. Using real characters and real events, the play imagines what went on behind-the-scenes of history. Jeffrey Brown gives a look from New York City with the cast and crew.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Tony Awards are this Sunday, and one of the Broadway shows nominated for best play is “Oslo.”

It’s a drama that takes a deeper look at what went into the historical Middle East peace accords and their relevance today.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: The world saw this, the historic 1993 handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, brought together at the White House by President Bill Clinton.

What we didn’t see was this:

ACTOR: You will achieve nothing because your negotiating model is fundamentally flawed.

JEFFREY BROWN: The nine months behind-the-scenes secret negotiations that led up to the Oslo accords.

ACTOR: This is our chance to make a difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the play “Oslo,” playwright J.T. Rogers has taken real people and events and, with dramatic license, imagined his way into history.

J.T. ROGERS, Playwright, “Oslo”: Sneaking into the royal households in Norway, the Palestine Liberation Organization illegally meeting with Israelis, drinking together, talking about their children in the middle of winter, and you think, as a storyteller, that’s manna from heaven.

ACTRESS: A million Palestinians, most of them without regular electricity or water, crammed into an area 25 miles long, but only a few miles wide.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roger’s way in was through the little-known behind-the-scenes role of a Norwegian couple, social scientist Terje Rod-Larsen played by Jefferson Mays, and diplomat Mona Juul played by Jennifer Ehle.

They served as facilitators in a series of high-stakes, highly secret talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

ACTRESS: There, in that moment, for us, it began.

JEFFREY BROWN: The real Mona Juul is now Norway’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Her husband, the real Terje Rod-Larsen, now heads the International Peace Institute and continues to work on various crises around the world.

He joined us in New York on stage recently at Lincoln Center Theater, where Oslo is being performed.

TERJE ROD-LARSEN, Peace Negotiator: Just a handful of people knew about what was happening on the Palestinian, Israeli and the Norwegian side. I think most people had the impression at the time that this was something which was very quickly concocted in the White House, and not something which was created laboriously, seven days a week, 24 hours over nine months.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it capture the art of negotiating and of your role pulling together the negotiations?

TERJE ROD-LARSEN: Yes, I think it does, actually, because we defined very strictly our role to be the facilitator of the talks and the go-between between the parties, and basically telling the parties, it’s your problems. You have to find a solution to it. It’s not our job. It’s your job.

JEFFREY BROWN: We watch the face-off between Ahmed Qurei and Uri Savir, the top Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, played by Anthony Azizi and Michael Aronov.

ACTOR: In my country, we see you as terrorists and murderers who wish to drive us into the sea.

ACTOR: In my country, we see you as a savage nation whose army shoots our children for sport!

JEFFREY BROWN: Over time, the two slowly get to know and respect one another.

ACTOR: Thank you. I admire your passion.

JEFFREY BROWN: The so-called Oslo accords agreed to by the real negotiators included the first formal mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, and set the guidelines of what to this day is referred to as the peace process.

In the play, the two Norwegians, their actions at times secret even from their own government, keep the talks going. And under director Bartlett Sher, the actors literally keep the play moving along, 60 scenes through several cities all on one stage set.

JEFFERSON MAYS, “Terje Rod-Larsen”: Welcome to backstage at the Vivian Beaumont.

JEFFREY BROWN: I spoke to Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle before a recent performance.

JEFFERSON MAYS: Terje Rod-Larsen came in to speak to the company about the double, sometimes triple game of diplomacy. And when he was talking about it, it struck me as being very theatrical. And the diplomats are as much …

JEFFREY BROWN: Really, not far from what you do, huh?

TERJE ROD-LARSEN: No, no. There were diplomats. A good diplomat is, I think, very much like a good actor, in that extremely sensitivity to the other people in the room, and is called upon to play-act at certain points.

JENNIFER EHLE, “Mona Juul”: It has an element of a spy thriller.

I think people come in sometimes thinking, I don’t know what I’m going to see, three hours of a historical political drama. And — but it’s got a sort of binge-watch sort of hook that gets in you, and you really just want to keep going.

JEFFERSON MAYS: You said every character in this play speaks their subtext. There is no subtext.

JENNIFER EHLE: There is no subtext. It is about ideas. It’s about facts and it’s about narrative, an incredible narrative drive, when you have characters who are only saying exactly what they mean.

JEFFERSON MAYS: I will tell you a secret. I was nervous at first to meet those two, first members of the PLO I had ever been face to face with. They’re not the demons I was expecting.

JEFFREY BROWN: An agreement and great hope, but it didn’t last.

The following years brought more suffering, death and enmity that continue to this day.

But Terje Rod-Larsen, the ever-optimistic peace negotiator, says the Oslo accords did have a lasting impact, including the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, a peace between Israel and Jordan that has held, and more.

TERJE ROD-LARSEN: What we are seeing today is difficult, but without these institutions, it would have been gangland and complete chaos today. So it has benefited Palestinian and Israelis alike.

When President Trump visited the Palestinians, he visited the Palestinian president, which springs out of the Oslo accords. If he brings the parties together again, a premise for any talk has to be the only signed agreements which are there, which are the Oslo accords.

JEFFREY BROWN: As for “Oslo” the play taking on such world-shaking history, playwright J.T. Rogers cited a pretty good precedent.

J.T. ROGERS: Shakespeare’s plays are entertaining and bawdy and sexy and politics and life and death, and he’s pretty good.


J.T. ROGERS: I think that — I think it’s odd to me that current events or larger political things are not approached more in the American theater, only because it’s such great red meat for us; 1,200 people a night sit here like around a campfire and hear the same story and ask themselves the same questions.

And that’s — only the theater can do that, no TV, no Netflix, only the theater.

ACTOR: During the demonstration in support of the Oslo accords, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Oslo” received seven Tony nominations in all, including for its two lead actors and as the year’s best play.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at Lincoln Center Theater in New York.