A minimalist, modern set, boldly lit, provides the backdrop to David Hare’s new play The Vertical Hour, which received its UK premiere at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs last night. This clean, unfussy set is a calm contrast to the complexity of the conversations and the relationships that are depicted in this play about the political and the personal. Caroline Bishop was in the first night audience.
It would have been interesting to see whether audiences in New York, where Hare’s new play premiered in 2006, reacted differently to those at the Royal Court, because Hare has created a work which explores the clash between British and American values and way of life, between pro and anti-Iraq war attitudes, between New York and Shrewsbury.
The play – which is heavy on dialogue and slim on action – centres on thirty-something Nadia Blye, a former war correspondent and now academic at Yale, who takes a short break in England with her boyfriend Philip, where they visit his father Oliver in his house in rural Shropshire. Through the course of one day and one night, Nadia finds her personal and political values challenged by the sharply caustic Oliver, a 58-year-old doctor who doggedly pursues Nadia in “a well ordered game” of intellectual debate and eventual soul-searching.
Nadia, whom Indira Varma portrays as a strong and supremely confident woman who is secure in her pro-Iraq war views, is initially amused by Oliver’s (Anton Lesser) interrogation of her stance and intrigued by this intelligent English country GP. But as the conversations deepen and the political merges with the personal, Nadia comes to learn more about herself. She may have survived war-torn Sarajevo and Baghdad, but she can’t survive Oliver’s questioning without finally admitting her inner vulnerabilities.
Hare cleverly leads the audience down a certain path, only to then address the questions he has raised. It seems unrealistic, at first, that Nadia would be attracted to physiotherapist Philip (Tom Riley), who could never intellectually challenge her like his father does, and who seems far too straightforward and dull for this high flyer. But later it conspires that Nadia was actively looking for “benign passion” after the volatility of her work and past relationships. Equally, it becomes apparent that Philip’s blandness is something of a reaction against his tumultuous family background and hostile relationship with his father.
The play begins with Nadia disdainfully brushing off a student’s lovelorn theory that no one is who they seem, it is what’s underneath that is important. But in Shropshire the naivety of her disdain is revealed. The state of the world has so occupied her every thought that she cannot see – or does not acknowledge the importance of – what is underneath, both in herself and others.
The Vertical Hour plays until 1 March.