Missed chances in war and love

A drama about the Middle East peace process and a Sondheim revival explore wasted opportunities

Anne McElvoy

A play about a failed Middle East peace process in the early 1990s might not sound like a guaranteed theatrical hit. Plays about grand historical events and their disappointments can easily lapse into a never-ending scene of big names in smart suits meeting round big tables. David Hare’s Stuff Happens on Iraq captured the accident-prone nature of the undertaking but never wholly escaped the burden of the real action and suffering occurring offstage.

Yet Oslo, transferred to the National Theatre from the Lincoln Center, New York, and already nominated for the full shebang of multiple Tony awards, confounds such fears. It’s a moving, funny and insightful three hours, which (worry not) feel a lot shorter.

J.T. Rogers is a serious playwright with a gift for lightness, enhanced by Bartlett Sher’s direction. This account of the secret talks that led to the Oslo accords takes us from the first agreement made between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel.

Crucially, it occurred behind the backs of the major powers, the brainchild of an academic and diplomat who were also husband and wife — Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens) and Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard), adding a wry domestic dimension (do you serve waffles to hardened Middle East bargainers?) to what might be bloodless roles.

It’s hard in a sombre global mood now to imagine how hopeful a moment the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat was. The road to it is recaptured in all its ambition, nobility, quirks and setbacks.

The secret ingredient that makes Oslo feel so lively is its irreverence, even when the stakes are high and feelings and wounds run as deep as they do between Palestinians and Israelis. It bends verbatim theatre, crackling dialogue and high (and low) comedy, with a confident nod to Tom Stoppard’s ability to find the personal and sometimes absurd in grand politics. And like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it celebrates characters behind the scenes, rather than the big beasts. Henry Kissinger, for example, is portrayed in wicked impersonation by the Israeli intermediary.

Philip Arditti in this role is a lithe, sarky commentator on the uselessness of the rest of the world in dealing with his country’s complications. His Palestinian opposite number (Peter Polycarpou) is a prolix bon-vivant and Toby Stephens is the Norwegian PM, grasping his moment to break out of backwater politics and stick a polished shoe in the door of global affairs.

Rogers has said he wanted to bring the lightness of Noël Coward’s waspish but trenchant dialogue to a subject which might otherwise deter all but the hardiest consumers of current-affairs theatre. What might follow? A Brexit  musical in the vein of Rogers and Hammerstein? Count me in. Oslo is now at the Harold Pinter Theatre until December 30, so you can catch it there, ponder what might have been and catch one of the most energetic political dramas of the year, with consequences the Middle East lives with today.

An ancient Chinese poet wrote a meditation about old friends meeting up to revisit their glory days. It concludes simply: “This old and still not dead.” Stephen Sondheim echoes that thought in musicals abut the yearning, regret and poignancy of reencountering your younger self and life choices.

His Follies, first performed in 1971, now at the National until January 3, turns elegantly on the reunion of a chorus line of revue girls, now middle-aged, meeting to review their high and low lights in a doomed Broadway theatre, and takes place largely in a a shabby backstage, furnished by discarded auditorium chairs with dodgy lighting and treacherous floorboards.

Dominic Cooke’s direction makes the most of Sondheim’s 40-watt mood. Early critics found it too sombre, but that probably says more about the limited appetites of reviewers of the period for musical theatre that could probe darker depths, as well as vaunt jaunty song-and-dance routines.

Age, we feel, has magnified traits, in the way that we become self-parodies of ourselves, magnifying what we know others expect from us. Sally (Imelda Staunton)   is a nervy over-talker, pining for a missed chance in love. “Losing My Mind” is the song that allows us to admit what we cannot easily do in later life: that deception or abandonment can still sting, long after we claim all is forgotten. Philip Quast as Ben, the lost love, finally gets the point of what has happened and revisits his own choices.

Follies is fittingly, a revue show in structure, with a parade of glitzy bit parts. Di Botcher, as now-respectable Hattie, is seized by the desire to stomp the boards, and belts out “Broadway Baby”. The ghost of  her younger self looks on, amused. A lesser author than Sondheim might offer us neat closure. But in this eternal triangle, there is no resolution, just a shimmering recognition of a lost chance, beautifully recreated through wit and song.

Merrily We Roll Along (my favourite Sondheim) it may be melancholy but never downbeat. The musical showstopper is Tracie Bennett as Carlotta, belting out “I’m still here” with a catch in the throat. The defiant strike against middle-aged invisibility without falling into vinegary regrets is beautiful conveyed, as much in gesture as word.

All the characters have glamorous avatars of their younger selves. It seems churlish to give away how it all pans out, since Sondheim’s plot turns on secrets and half-truths rediscovered. Should we treat the past as another country — or take a last chance to visit it when fate offers the chance? You decide.  Suffice it to say that, in the manner of the recent Conservative Party conference, illuminated letters gradually drop off the set, allowing us to spot the elision of Follies — and lies.

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