Review: 2017 Tony Award-winning Best Play OSLO by J.T. Rogers at the National Theatre, Lyttelton

When Oslo opened on Broadway, I was only vaguely intrigued by it, but as I read more and more about the story that the play tells, I became almost obsessed with it. Then in June, the play went on to win the Tony for Best Play and now, the show is in London - quick turnaround, indeed. Currently playing at the NT before a West End run, Oslo is going to be as much of a hit here as it was in NYC.

The National Theatre's website describes J.T. Rogers's Oslo as the following: "In 1993, in front of the world’s press, the leaders of Israel and Palestine shook hands on the lawn of the White House. Few watching would have guessed that the negotiations leading up to this iconic moment started secretly in a castle in the middle of a forest outside Oslo. Oslo tells the true story of two maverick Norwegian diplomats who coordinated top secret talks and inspired seemingly impossible friendships. Their quiet heroics led to the groundbreaking Oslo Peace Accords." Now, it goes without saying that this play is very heavy on politics and subject matter, but somehow, Rogers has managed to craft this heavy topic into a comedic masterpiece as well as a dramatic one; for every moment that feels weighed down by mention of politics, there is a moment that is steeped in light-hearted comedy. If anything, that is the most impressive part of this play that can be, at times, simply rather boring. 

While Rogers is clearly very well-versed in the language and details of the Oslo Peace Accords, it has the ability to feel snobby at times and because I had no real prior knowledge before going in, I did (at times) feel left out of some of the fun. This doesn't detract majorly, but this is something to note. I'd go as far as to say that if you don't like plays that make you work hard to reap the rewards of the experience then I'd avoid this like the plague. For me at least, it took a lot of effort to follow what was going on and who was doing what, but it did ultimately satisfy me by the time the curtain came down.

The cast of Oslo at the National Theatre, Lyttelton

The cast of this play help with that though and their performances harmonise together beautifully. My personal favourite member of the cast was Lydia Leonard (Mona Juul, an official in the Foreign Ministry). This play has a very heavily male cast, so being one of the only women in an ensemble piece like this one cannot be an easy job, but Leonard masters is beautifully. Perhaps it's also a testament to Rogers's writing, but Mona never seems to be overpowered by the male-dominated group that surrounds her and she never seems to over-dominate them. Her performance is also incredibly funny and she's the kind of character that by the end, you want to be best friends with her. Mona's husband is played by Toby Stephens in a performance that is also very funny. Together, the two of them have fantastic chemistry and you feel invested in them throughout. Other standout performances for me include Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie and Philip Arditti as Uri Savir, but the entire cast is brilliant as a whole.

While I do argue that the play can get boring at times, do not confuse that with it feeling stagnant or un-changing. Despite Michael Yeargan's set design offering very little in regards to props and physical set-pieces, Bartlett Sher manages to make the play feel like it is constantly moving forward and incorporates Yeargan's set design and Donald Holder's lighting design into that vision to create seamless sequences of time passing and scenes changing. It goes without saying but Bartlett Sher's work is as fantastic here as ever, taking a piece that is a lot of complicated legal talk and making it as accessible as possible for a wide audience.

Lydia Leonard and Tony Stephens in Oslo

Oslo is a brilliant piece of work by J.T. Rogers, but isn't one that I'd recommend for everybody. If you like political plays then Oslo is like an early Christmas present, but if you don't, then you'd probably resent going along if you did. It's clear to see why this got the attention of so many critics when it ran on Broadway and got the attention of the American Theatre Wing when it came to the Tonys - now I'm excited to see what London critics and Olivier voters think of it as well.

Oslo continues at the National Theatre, Lyttelton through September 23rd before transferring to the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre from September 30th. Tickets for the National Theatre (sold out) run can be found here and tickets for the Pinter run are here.

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