It came as a surprise to hear the audience at London's National Theatre laughing out loud during a performance of Oslo. J T Rogers's multi-award-winning political play, which has just transferred to the West End from Broadway, tells the story of the peace talks started in secrecy between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993. Talks that famously led to the Oslo Accords.
In the much-anticipated London stage production, Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens star as married Norwegian couple Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, who played a crucial role in back-channel negotiations between both sides that ultimately led to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn with United States president Bill Clinton looking on.
Juul and Rød-Larsen's part in the coming together of two enemies was untold until a chance meeting in 2012 between Rogers and Rød-Larsen led the American playwright to dramatise the story.
Juul was working for the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs in Cairo, while her husband was also developing contacts at a research institute based in Egypt's capital. Oslo follows the couple who orchestrated high-level meetings between the Israelis and the PLO officials, at a time when the Palestinian organisation, chaired by Arafat, was in exile in Tunis.
On paper, a three-hour play (including an interval) about a highly-complex political process and ultimately futile peace agreement seems a little dry. Oslo is a sharp political thriller, however, with twists and turns aplenty to keep its audience engaged. Rogers's unexpectedly humorous narrative humanises some of the key players, notably PLO finance minister and later prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Ahmed Qurei (played by Peter Polycarpu), and Israeli chief negotiator Uri Savir (Philip Arditti).
In one such moment, Savir puts his jacket over his head and does an impression of Arafat in front of a stern-faced Qurei, who howls with laughter. Oslo also manages to convey the convictions of those around the table. Knowing the outcome, the play is not without pathos. As Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres (Paul Herzberg) agrees the final deal over the phone with the PLO committee in Tunis, he hears a strange noise in the background. It is revealed later as the Palestinians crying at the false hope of being allowed back to their homeland after so many years.
Oslo has won a multitude of awards, including two Tonys for Best Play and Best Featured Actor. The play premiered at the Lincoln Centre Theatre in New York in June last year before moving to Broadway in April. After a two-week run at the National Theatre, Oslo will transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, until the end of December.
In the 24 years since the accords were signed peace has faltered, but in the West End at least, the audience is left with a message of hope. It's a sentiment still espoused by Rød-Larsen and Juul, the latter who is now Norwegian ambassador to the UK, that the door is always open for those willing to negotiate peace in the Middle East. However, Palestinians living with the reality of Israel's apartheid state would find that optimism laughable.
Oslo runs at the National Theatre, London, until Saturday, and then the Harold Pinter Theatre from October 2 until December 30