The Vertical Hour
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The first professional revival of David Hare's political play about Iraq is a brew of big ideas that fills the auditorium with heady fumes.
For a certain type of theatregoer, David Hare’s become a bogeyman; synonymous with his own special brand of thesis theatre, in which articulate characters sit around articulating. He uses the stage as a leader column and ‘The Vertical Hour’, getting its first professional revival at the Park, might just be the apotheosis of the form.
It’s basically David Hare’s Theory of Iraq, and if that sounds bloodless, well it is. But it’s also bloody brilliant: an extraordinary piece of public thinking that benefits both from the distance of a decade and, as another Gulf war looms into view, a renewed sense of urgency.
Around a garden table in Shropshire, over breakfast coffee and late night wine, sits an American political scientist, Nadia (Thusitha Jayasundera), who’s in favour of military intervention in Iraq, and an English GP, Oliver (Peter Davison), who’s against. She’s eloquent. He’s lucid. For her, a botched job doesn’t invalidate the impulse to intervene. He disagrees: knowing the surgeon gave him ‘a fair idea of what the operation would look like’. It’s lines like that which make her fall for him – despite dating his dullard of a son.
It’s not much of a plot and the characters are ideologies with legs, but this is a brew of big ideas that fills the auditorium with heady fumes. There’s a son determined to outstrip his father’s achievements, a tract about stated and unstated intentions, musings on healing versus well-being (equally applicable to nations and people), a careful dissection of American and British values and an argument that nothing was ever solved from an ivory tower – or a Shropshire retreat. Hare’s genius is to distil so much into one situation. It’s up to you to both keep up and make connections.
Director Nigel Douglas and his team can’t make a thinky play one of feeling. But they can deliver it exquisitely. Jayasundera is properly, Olivier Award brilliant as Nadia, bringing lightness to dense academia, Davison catches all the gentle pomp of polite, British intelligentsia, while Finlay Robertson gawps to perfection as the son.