Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Theatre review: The Vertical Hour

Like Skylight, David Hare's The Vertical Hour sees him pit political ideologies against each other in the middle of a complicated personal relationship, in a conversation that runs on well into the night. In this 2006 play though, the political subject - the Iraq War - is made clear from the outset. Nadia (Thusitha Jayasundera) used to be a war correspondent, but after her time in Sarajevo moved back to America, settling at Yale as a politics lecturer. The play is bookended by seminars with two of her students (Cameron Cuffe, Pepter Lunkuse,) who like many have a degree of undisguised contempt for her support of the "liberation" of Iraq. Her views are so high-profile she's been invited to advise George W. Bush in person, and she can't escape discussion of the subject even when she goes on holiday with her English boyfriend Philip (Finlay Robertson) to meet his (now-divorced) parents.

First off is the visit Philip's dreading most, to the father he's barely on speaking terms with, and most of the play takes place in the isolated house outside Shrewsbury, where Oliver (Peter Davison) now works as a GP.

Oliver is vocally against the war, so Nadia is expecting a lively discussion, but she's not prepared for how much he'll get under her skin. Nadia, and particularly Philip, dismiss the last century's obsession with psychiatry as self-involved, focusing on the personal at the expense of the bigger picture, but Oliver hones in with uncanny accuracy on how the personal and political are intertwined, and how she's making a mistake in trying to separate them.

Although essentially a straightforward exchange of opinions the first act is quietly fascinating; but after the interval, when things really should come to a head, Nigel Douglas' production runs out of steam and out of ideas, making for a second act that seems unwilling and unlikely ever to end. Though ultimately mouthpieces for their differing views, Hare has given his characters a certain amount of complexity and a lot of ambiguity: Oliver seems reasonable, but is charming enough that he could, just about, be quietly manipulating everyone in the way Philip accuses him of. But Philip's dislike of his father gets so close to hysterical it's hard to take his word for anything. The static direction (I felt bad for the woman audience left, for whom 90% of the play would have been a close-up of Davison's back) gradually sucks the life out of the characters and their arguments though, leaving their complexities as mere frustrations.

The Vertical Hour by David Hare is booking until the 26th of October at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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