London, October 26th, 2017
"What a lovely gown. You look like you are part of the interior, dear," says a nice elderly woman as she moves past me to find her seat in the busy Harold Pinter Theatre. I smile and straighten my long, lacy dress while trying desperately not to fidget and betray how nervous I am.
To understand why a grown woman would be so nervous about watching a play, there are a few things you need to know about me. Firstly, I'm from a country that doesn't have much of a theatre culture beyond musicals. I'm simply not used to the grandeur and impact of London theatre.
Secondly, I'm alone tonight, so there is no one here to help me shore up my courage for what I plan to do after the show.
Thirdly - and most importantly - I'm about to see one of my absolute favourite actors live for the first time ever.
My first encounter with Toby Stephens was Captain Flint and, as is true for so many Black Sails fans, he blew me away. Only once before did an actor's performance strike me on such a personal level that I got into an airplane and flew halfway across the world to see them live. London is a bit closer to home, but still. I'm here, and this is happening.
As the seats fill, I remind myself not to expect Flint tonight. The play Oslo is about the secret negotiations resulting in the 1994 Oslo Accords between the Palestinian PLO and the state of Israel, and Toby's character, Terje Larsen, is a professor rather than a pirate captain. It promises to be a vastly and no doubt delightfully different experience.
The curtains were already drawn when the doors opened, giving the audience a full view of the classic office interior on stage. We wait for the play to begin, but the lights remain on and so everyone keeps chatting. At first, people don't even notice that someone walks on stage and watches us with quiet impatience. Like a professor waiting for the unruly students in his lecture room to pay attention.
Within seconds, though, that is exactly what we do. Just standing there, looking at us without saying a word, Toby's stage presence is striking. And the play has barely begun.
I soak up every sound and sight, but I make particular note of Toby's acting. As a writer, I love to study how actors approach their different roles, noting how despite similar looks and movements, they add little details to bring a character to life and set each character apart from each other as well as the actor themselves.
The first thing that stands out to me is how Terje Larsen speaks in a higher tone of voice, moves more fluidly, and over all has far less gravity than Captain Flint. Same man beneath the surface, yet Terje is a world apart from anything I had seen Toby in thus far. He even includes the subtle mannerisms so typical of seasoned, self-important yet idealistic academics. He could have been one of my professors back at university!
Again, I'm a writer and I can't help but compare story elements as well as character elements. From that perspective, it's funny to see how certain aspects of managing the PLO and Israeli negotiations resemble the challenges of managing a pirate rebellion - and how differently Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) handle those challenges.
Despite the severity of the subject, Oslo has a much lighter tone than I had initially expected. It perfectly mixes profound socio-political commentary with hilarious lines and ditto delivery. On the whole, every aspect of the events, the characters and the dialogue is incredibly well-balanced.
After the interval, however, the story as well as the performances become more intense. The stakes increase, as does the delicate balance between tension and humour. The cast pulls it off wonderfully! But the best is yet to come.
As the negotiations are drawing to a close and the Israeli and PLO delegations are getting on quite well, their quips and jokes are no longer at the expense of each other. As temperaments and confidence rise, they turn on their host: Larsen.
The atmosphere in the negotiation room becomes increasingly unpleasant, even more so when one of the Israeli, Uri Savir (Philip Arditti) begins to impersonate Jasser Arafat and takes derogatory pot shots at Larsen. Until now, Larsen has kept out of the limelight, but when challenged like this, he responds. Except he does not confront Savir as himself, but as an impersonation of the strict and severe Yitzack Rabin.
From one moment to the next, Toby shows the determination hidden beneath Larsen's diplomatic caution: back ramrod straight, glaring, his voice low and growling, he meets the challenge posed to him. The tension in the theatre is palpable as Larsen and Savir, as Rabin and Arafat, are locked in a face-off.
Two actors each playing a character who each plays another character. That in itself is beautiful to see performed so well, but the confrontation continues longer than is comfortable to watch. "Arafat" jibes that the Israeli army doesn't use real bullets to fire at the Palestinians, to which "Rabin" replies at curt, nasty tone: "All I need is one bullet. Just for you." Toby is right in the other actor's face, imposing and dangerous. The threat is clear, the tension tangible - in that instant, sitting no more than ten feet away, I feel like I've received a physical blow to my chest.
For a few moments, the character I see there on stage is neither Terje Larsen nor Yitzack Rabin. Against all odds, we get a glimpse of Flint. And I'm deeply grateful - and a tad unnerved - for the experience.
As quickly as that intense energy took over, it dissipates again as Larsen defuses the situation and the play continues toward its conclusion. The treaties are signed and politicians take credit, while Larsen and Mona return to anonymity. Oslo is surprisingly entertaining, yes, but it is also thought-provoking, knowing that despite the efforts we have seen summarised on stage, the Oslo Accords ultimately collapsed.
But thoughtful reflections will have to wait for a bit. There is something else I came to do here tonight: deliver a message.
I'm still reeling from everything I have seen when I hurry to make my way out of the theatre after curtain call. With the minimum of make-up used, the actors won't need long to change and leave. It's late, the play takes three hours, of which Toby spent two hours and forty-five minutes on stage. No doubt they will want to go home as quickly as they can.
It's quiet at the stage door, and I did well to be fast. Toby is the first to come out, looking understandably dead-tired. But, give an actor a piece of paper and a pen, and they know what to do. As he takes the script booklet I bought, I have a precious second to gather my thoughts.
"Thank you for tonight," I say.
"Pleasure," he replies automatically, trying the pen and scrawling his sizeable signature on the title page.
"And thank you for Captain Flint."
He stops to actually look at me.
Lost for words, I try to explain: "I love complex characters and Flint is just so many levels of brilliant!"
I feel like an inarticulate idiot, but he smiles. "Thank you. I appreciate that!" he says as he pats my arm. "Have a good night."
I return the farewell and watch him disappear into the dusk of this London alley. I have half a mind to wait for the rest of the cast, but I'm too overwhelmed. For the next hour, I wander the streets, booklet pressed to my chest as I take the long road back to my hotel.
Written by: Christel Vogels, Production Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg