Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 23 September 2017
Then Harold Pinter Theatre, London – 2 October-30 December 2017
PEACE IN THEIR TIME…HOW TO DO IT… This is a three-hour historical political play about Middle East negotiations in the 1990s: and it is absolutely thrilling. Pins you to your seat with tension, breaks an audience into sudden barks of laughter – either of relaxation or relief – and in its dénouement wins a tear.
It tells the story of back-channel negotiations between two enemies of forty bitter years: the PLO led by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli government under Rabin and Shimon Peres. Over nine months in 92-93, a Norwegian academic called Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (now ambassador here) decided that since their country was perceived neutral, it might be possible to set up private, secret talks before – and outside of – the official Washington conference.
With oblique, minimal official agreement from Mona’s ministers, fixing their own hire cars and secret venue, the pair juggled telephone calls and bluffs, called in favours (“Norway is a very small country”) and got it started. The inspiration was idealistic: they had visited Israel, he was blown away by how “fantastically not Norwegian!” it was, and both shaken by the grief and waste of bombings and shootings. They knew it would be fraught. “You don’t make peace with people you’d have dinner parties with. You make peace with people who shoot you and bomb your buses”. They also had to accept that the first participants had to be diplomatic, if not positively secretive, with their own superiors back home.
But they did it. The optimistic dilettante non-diplomat Larsen felt that the “grip of history was loosening’ as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell, and that informality beat cards-on-the-table negotiations. He plunged into it in a feet-first spirit (Toby Stephens is often very funny in the part) while his wife, a junior diplomat played by Lydia Leonard with a marvelous quiet grace, took a more professional, exasperated but always hopeful approach. They got far closer to peace than anything dreamed of before: Rabin and Arafat shook hands and signed in Washington on 23 September 1993: later, when the Israeli premier was assassinated by an extremist of his own nation, Arafat wept.
J.T.Rogers’ play won a Tony, and deserves it for a perfectly paced, intensely clear structure combining direct documentary-style explanation with fast-sparking dramatic dialogue. Bartlett Sher’s direction is equally clear and fast, and the performances remarkable. Indeed very seldom do you remember you are watching performances. You think you’re seeing, with the hopeful young Larsens, the pairs of real adversaries matching and fighting their inherited hatreds. There is a degree of comedy (not least in Paul Herzberg iand Thomas Arnold as economics professors in scruffy raincoats, the nearest Israel would come at first to deliberately unofficial envoys) and moments of tenser astonishment . One comes when Philip Arditti , as the senior Israeli negotiator who eventually in a moment of extreme détente does an impression of a rather camp is Yasser Arafat, and doesn’t get shot down for it by the PLO men . Another memorable scene sees Arditti and Peter Polycarpou as the PLO man persuaded after a nasty scene to take a late night walk in the woods together, when they find that both their daughters have the same name: Maya. That semitic closeness of Arab and Jew…
At these moments, holding your breath, you do pay mental tribute to the actors. But you are looking through them , as you should be, marvelling at history and hope. And danger. As the communist PLO man Hassan, Nabil Elouahabi is tremendous, a tense ball of fury from his first refusal to be jovial (“the petit-bourgeois concept of family does not interest me”) who moves through sullenness and anger to acceptance.
It is a story which should be told. And which, at a time when not only is the West wondering if it can ever talk to ISIS, but when our own little shenanigan finds Britain and Europe less than inspiring as negotiators. One dreams of such a back-channel for Brexit. In the lighter moments of this play Geraldine Alexander , as Tori the kindly Norwegian housekeeper wound in folksy plaits, plies the smouldering negotiatiors with vanilla waffles. We could do with her in Brussels.
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
to 23 sept Then at Harold PInter Theatre in West end but tks from NT