“What is a lie, but a dream that could come true?” That’s a maxim attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in this drama by U.S. playwright JT Rogers – and it’s at the heart of a play that questions the ethics and efficacy of diplomacy in the desperate, tangled struggle for peace in the Middle East. Directed by Bartlett Sher, it’s a work that has elegance, wit and something of the epic heft of a Shakespearean history. It’s part lecture, part political thriller, with a dash of farce – full of crisscrossing phone lines and intersecting conversations, clashes of ego, blunders and gambles, furious accusations, hard-won compromises and unlikely connections. Both Sher’s production and Rogers’ writing have a reflective coolness that make the staging informative and interesting, rather than viscerally involving. But it’s effectively achieved, even so.
We’re in the Norwegian capital in the early 1990s, where Terje Rod-Larsen (Toby Stephens), a research academic, and his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard), who works for the Foreign Ministry, are exploring the possibility of turning their country’s neutrality to advantage, and facilitating secret back-channel talks between Rabin’s government and the PLO. Key figures on the Palestinian side are earnest, poetic Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou), Yasser Arafat’s finance minister, accompanied by a lean, leather-jacketed Marxist PLO liaison officer (Nabil Elouahabi). Their opposite numbers, initially, are a pair of well-meaning, rumpled Israeli economics professors. Impatiently dismissed by Qurie as “the Laurel and the Hardy,” they are frustrated to find themselves sidelined and their initial, arduous input appropriated when firebrand Uri Savir (Philip Arditti), director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and pettifogging legal advisor Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan) later join in. Meanwhile, Larsen and Mona push for a dialogue that focuses on shared aims and humanity rather than diplomatic totality, serving up polite hospitality and attempting to contain explosions of testosterone, rage and frustration as well as dangerous leaks.
We’re presented with a somewhat dizzying amount of information, but Rogers eases absorption by drawing the characters vividly. Stephens as Larsen is a self-regarding, slightly slippery figure with a willingness to bend the truth to a degree that alarms his wife and, when he exploits the trust placed in her, endangers her career and credibility. Leonard’s Mona, meanwhile, is our guide to events, smoothly offering direct-address narration and explanation throughout, and winning the affections and respect of the men on both sides. As Qurie, Polycarpou has a warm likability and a lovely lyrical turn of phrase. “Your word is written in ice under the sand,” he chides Arditti’s Savir, who is a blend of hair-trigger temper and posturing flirt, grabbing Mona for an impromptu tango. A pair of laconic security guards and a twinkling cook who serves up Scandinavian treats – her waffles are a particular hit – add an extra comic note, and the conviviality of the shared food and family histories that punctuate the process are as important to the outcome as what happens around the negotiating table.
It’s a chewy, fibrous, froth-free evening that offers some fascinating insights, as well as a tantalising glimpse of the hope, too quickly and cruelly extinguished, that historic change in the Middle East might really be possible. Thoughtful, revealing and thorough.