The lead characters are a Norwegian couple who had Middle East experience and thought they might be able to broker an agreement. This was high-octane audacity. Yet the two of them — Terje Rod-Larsen, a social scientist, and his wife, Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s foreign ministry — pulled it off.
The play’s Mr. Larsen, portrayed by Jefferson Mays, seems a somewhat foggier professorial sort than the man I recall. More jarring is the Juul character played by Jennifer Ehle. She is the narrator and a near-constant stage presence. In 1993, her intimate involvement in the talks was not nearly so evident to outsiders. The differences in perception nagged at me.
After leaving the theater, I went home to reread a long reconstruction of the negotiations — a ticktock, in newspaper jargon — that I had written in early September 1993. I was startled to see I had made no reference at all to Ms. Juul, who is now Norway’s ambassador to Britain. Other newspapers at the time similarly gave her scant attention, if any. Was her onstage prominence a playwright’s invention? Or did we — did I — get an important element of the story flat-out wrong?
I asked Mr. Rogers about it. He had interviewed Oslo principals in researching his play. His sense was that “Juul didn’t really want to take credit for anything,” and at the time purposefully avoided the limelight. Back then, her major role was easy to miss, he said. But she was a key figure: “The men” — the negotiators were all men — “were really struck by her.”
Some of the men on the Beaumont stage were barely recognizable. I’m thinking in particular of Uri Savir, a senior foreign ministry official who was the lead Israeli negotiator. In creating his character, Mr. Rogers exercised his dramatist’s license aerobically. He acknowledged that.
This Mr. Savir, played by Michael Aronov, is bearded and svelte, a live wire in a purple shirt who hops on the furniture spewing obscenities every second or third sentence. The real Mr. Savir was, shall we say, more roly-poly and less flamboyant — definitely unlikely to jump on a table or wear anything other than the standard-issue suit of a career diplomat.
But when it comes to the big picture — how the parties got to yes — “Oslo” nails it. Thus did it transport me back to those heady days.
Secrecy, as Mr. Rogers correctly shows, was essential. The two parties normally had a capacity to leak like a colander, especially the Israelis. “That was the difficult part — keeping our mouths shut,” Yair Hirschfeld, an Israeli negotiator (played by Daniel Oreskes), told me in 1993. Still, word about Oslo did leak out. In late August, I first heard hints of it from a well-connected Palestinian money-changer in East Jerusalem.
The playwright also grasps how atmospherics enhanced the chances of success. There is an element of onstage clownishness that some audiences might take to be an invention. I knew that it wasn’t. The Larsen-Juul team went out of its way to create opportunities for shared meals, shared drinks and even shared jokes. Each side saw the other as human.
One other element, most important, stands out as what the American Middle East specialist Aaron David Miller has aptly referred to in a book title as “The Much Too Promised Land.” The past enshrouds almost everything there. Each side sees itself as history’s true orphan. A rule that the Norwegians imposed was that the negotiators set their sights on the future; rehashing the past was an invitation to resentment, friction and inevitable failure.
The strategy worked. As I watched the onstage drama, I reflected on the measure of optimism that had been kindled even in impoverished, overcrowded and bitter Gaza. Jericho, isolated though a mere 15 miles from Jerusalem, was definitely ready for better days. It had long been a backwater, probably ever since Joshua fit the battle. “This is our chance to prove that we can control our own lives,” a toy-store owner told me at the time.
Many Israelis, whose national anthem is titled “The Hope,” were ready, too. I sat with a group of them watching the Handshake on television in a suburb of Jerusalem. They were in awe, albeit tempered by a distrust of Arafat. One woman, no softy, had been a runner in pre-state Palestine for the underground paramilitary outfit known as the Stern Gang. Now, overwhelmed, she wiped away tears.
I said “Oslo” evoked the optimism I had once felt. Briefly, I also said. The sensation quickly vanished. There’s no need to relive here how the peace process crumbled under the weight of terrorism, assassination, settlement expansion, physical barriers, mutual accusations of bad faith and even a retreat from the notion of shared humanity. Peace now seems very distant indeed.
The hopeful Larsen character urges the audience to “see how far we have come.”
“If we have come this far — through blood, through fear, hatred — how much further can we yet go?” he says. The question is as tantalizing today as it was in 1993. But I left the Beaumont sadly aware that the rancorous past, not a hopeful future, rules for now in the much-too-promised land.