Speech therapy

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

Oslo opened in the spring of 2016 at a modest venue in New York. It moved to Broadway and this imported version has arrived at the National on its way to a prebooked run at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It’s bound to be a hit because it’s good fun, it gives a knotty political theme a thorough examination, and it’s aimed squarely at the ignorant.

In the early 1990s Norwegian diplomats set up ‘back-channel’ talks between the PLO and Israel. The play follows that process and it treats geopolitics like a flat-share comedy. The bickering partners are hauled in by the lordly Norwegians and forced to hammer out their differences around the table. Play-goers need have no prior knowledge of Israel and its fraught relationship with the Palestinians. Everything is laid out on a plate and the viewer is made to feel like a privileged observer at the launch of a conspiracy. Each side is guilty of subterfuge and exaggeration. The Norwegians pretend to be impartial while engaging in ‘constructive ambiguity’, i.e. the creation of false obstacles whose removal can be claimed as a victory by either party.

Toby Stephens enjoys himself playing the host, Terje Rod-Larsen, as an oily buffoon, and Paul Herzberg’s Simon Peres is an amusing study in majestic vanity. Director Bartlett Sher manages to capture the emotional temper of the talks. The delegates are all chest-thumping males who seem to adore the romance of the process, the schoolboy secrecy, the encrypted language, the hush-hush locations, the scent of power, and the awareness that history itself is present at the table. It becomes clear that the simple physical proximities, the sharing of waffles and whisky, can help to break down the barriers. Sworn enemies gradually move from mutual suspicion to grudging respect and finally to amity and friendship.

By the end the Arabs are laughing at an impersonation of Yasser Arafat performed by an Israeli wearing his jacket as a head-dress. A melancholy truth emerges from all this: if every Israeli and Palestinian were forced to spend a month talking heart-to-heart to his neighbours, peace would follow.

Terry Johnson’s new play charts the life of Jack Cardiff, an Oscar-winning cameraman, who worked with Hitchcock, John Huston, King Vidor, and many others. We meet the ageing genius in his dotage as he dodders around a converted garage in the care of his wife and a nurse. The set-up is baffling. Cardiff is writing an autobiography and he describes to his nurse the artistic challenges involved in creating a great shot. Yet Cardiff has severe dementia so his vanishing vocabulary keeps undermining his ability to reminisce articulately. And for some reason the nurse has a dual role as a secretary. Her job is to annotate Cardiff’s random thoughts and shape them into a book. And yet she doesn’t own a computer. She has to bang out his words two-fingered on an old typewriter. It’s very hard to grasp.

Robert Lindsay seems content to play Cardiff as a harmlessly dotty old twerp. Claire Skinner, far too young for Cardiff’s wife, potters around in mumsy clothes and a hairdo like an electrocuted hedgehog. It’s all rather dispiriting to watch. After the interval we flip back half a century and we’re in the Belgian Congo, where Cardiff is filming The African Queen. We watch him relaxing between takes as he plays cards with Bogie and Lauren Bacall and swaps catty witticisms with Katharine Hepburn. A sex-mad Bacall drags Bogie off for a quickie in the jungle and Bogie lashes Hepburn with a caustic put-down. ‘No wonder Spencer drinks.’ This half-hour section is so good it deserves to be extended into a full-length play.

Claire Skinner is utterly transformed as Hepburn. Her wig and make-up deserve prizes for their creator, Amy Coates. Skinner brilliantly conveys Hepburn’s delicate, prickly manner, and her punctilious diction is matched by the barbed fluency of her prose. The entire scene is wonderful. Then the action shifts again. Marilyn wafts in and we watch Cardiff setting up a shot and easing her frazzled nerves. Then we’re back to Cardiff pootling around in his garage in extreme old age again.

There are great things in this flawed play. Fans of Hollywood’s glory years will adore it. But the blunders and missteps are puzzling. Terry Johnson has been allowed to combine the roles of writer, script editor and director. An extra pair of eyes would have helped.

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