Three decades since the end of the Cold War this epoch continues to fascinate historians and dramatists alike.
Like many great works of drama Lee Blessing’s play A Walk in the Woods takes a real event as the basis for its intriguing meditation on how arms control negotiators ply their trade.
In 1982 in Geneva, Western Switzerland, the US diplomat Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart Yuli Kvitsinsky were in the midst of trying to achieve a break-through in ongoing arms control negotiations. In a bid to ease tensions the two negotiators took a stroll through nearby woods. This broke the logjam, but the putative deal was ultimately rejected by the US and Soviet governments.
Thus, we find ourselves in lush woodland gazing at a park bench as Messrs. Kvitsinsky’s and Nitze’s fictional selves, Soviet diplomat Andrey Botvinnik and US negotiator John Honeyman, begin a series of tense yet often entertaining dialogues in a new online production.
With just two characters talking at and over, as well as to each other often with humour but also with anger and implore Mr. Konowe’s production has a Beckett-esque feel. The play often assumes the air of Waiting for Godot but through a Cold War prism. Much as Godot never arrives in Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, so the goal of agreement between the two gentlemen seems elusive.
Mirroring the real events, making the park the unchanging set is a delightful device. One could say that parks played their supporting role during the Cold War. Master spy storyteller John Le Carré had Russian defectors murdered on Hampstead Heath in North London. Meanwhile Central Intelligence Agency spooks following ‘Moscow Rules’ would try to shake their KGB shadows in Moscow’s Gorky Park.
Much of the play sees the characters trying to find common ground, the very tenet of negotiation. Whether it be the cut of their suits, favourite colours or their opinions of Willie Nelson songs both are trying to break the deadlock on the personal as much as the political level. Mr. Blessing’s dialogue shows how such delicate negotiations traverse a threadbare tightrope with sudden failure after one false step never far away.
The election of President Joe Biden in late 2020 has revived arms control. Both Mr. Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are keen to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles. Both gentlemen agreed to extend the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) for five years until 2026 on 3rd February.
This leaves hope that new agreements to limit and reduce humankind’s most devastating weapons maybe in the offing. If and when they do appear the efforts of the Honeymans and Botvinniks of this world will have been indispensable for bringing these to fruition.
As Mr. Konowe’s production illustrates, the scratch of nib on pages patiently turned by an aide de camp amidst a flurry of flickering flash bulbs is merely the full stop in the narrative of negotiation navigated by the unseen, unsung peacemakers.
A Walk in the Woods is available to watch online between 19th and 25th March. Tickets can be purchased here https://restonplayers.org/currentshow/.
by Dr. Thomas Withington