Edinburgh Fringe 2010
On the one hand, The Vertical Hour is a highly charged political discussion about the propriety of interventionism. On the other, it’s an examination of how an individual’s political views are shaped by their personality. You decide.
Audiences are interesting things. I love watching them arrive, eagerly discussing the entertainment that awaits them. This lot are definitely in the middle class, middle aged, starting to go grey at the edges bracket. When the doors open the Guardian reading liberals make a dash for the front seats leaving what passes for a dress circle in these parts to the Daily Telegraph brigade. An almost perfectly divided audience then for a play that sees the confrontation of two ultimately irreconcilable idealists, both articulate to the point of loquacity.
When David Hare’s The Vertical Hour premiered on Broadway in 2006 it appeared to most critics to be a play about Iraq. The British premiere in 2008 (which forms the basis of Incrementum’s production) saw the balance shift with Iraq just one of a number of topics, thereby allowing Hare to move away from the overtly political and put the psyche of his main characters more under the spotlight.
Philip is a self-described physical therapist working in America who brings his girlfriend Nadia across to the UK to meet his father Oliver, a former nephrologist, now a part-time GP living alone in Shropshire.
Nadia, though, is not your run-of-the-mill girlfriend. A former war correspondent, she is now a leading Yale academic specialising in international relations and is an outspoken advocate of interventionism. As you would expect, she is outwardly confident and articulate. So is Oliver and before they’ve even sat down for a post greeting coffee they are in an animated discussion about the motives for terrorism (it’s apparently “the right answer to the wrong question”) and the problems of excessive materialism. The ensuing conversation hits on topics including Western decadence, the lawlessness of elected politicians, Anglo-American cultural differences, marriage, sexual mores, the 1960’s, the Sex Pistols, the “touchy feely” culture and what can be done to alleviate world suffering.
In some ways the play is discursive yet it also provides evidence of Hare’s lively curiosity and enquiring mind. But maybe it’s in part about the impossibility of separating public actions from private lives. It’s certainly about families and in particular the dysfunctional relationship between Oliver, Philip, the son who will forever live in his father’s shadow and his mad (offstage) mother.
It’s also about relationships in general as the three main personalities of father, son and girlfriend are gradually unpicked through their questioning of each other and of themselves. Sexual dubiety also exists in the interactions between Oliver and Nadia – given Oliver’s history of womanising, is he out to seduce her or is he merely pleased to have encountered an intellectual equal?
Oliver and Philip have been at loggerheads for years with the former’s outward acceptance that his son will never achieve what he wanted for him masking his private disappointment. But why someone of Nadia’s talents would fall for the relatively simple Philip is difficult to understand. She’s not so much being true to herself when she ultimately ends the relationship, merely bowing to the inevitable.
There’s a lot of material here for the main characters to get their heads around and they just about managed it. Nick Tyrell laboured valiantly to convey the image of the near 60 year old Oliver but it’s difficult to hit the right note of gravitas when you’re actually only about 25. Joe Gaminara was generally child-like as Philip and the vignettes played by Ben Donaldson and Myfanwy Hill, students in conversation with Nadia in the opening and closing scenes that bookend the piece, did the job.
But the show pivots around Rosie Isle (Nadia) who delivered a sterling performance that brought the required intellectual authority and vivacity but contained just a hint of vulnerability to what is an ultra-articulate character.
Set, lights and sound were designed not to get in the way of the words and generally they didn’t. However, judging from some frantic page turning going on in the technical area, the cast were taking occasional detours in the script. But that only caused a charming Mozart piano concerto to linger a little longer than it might have, which certainly soothed the dress circle behind me who were beginning to fidget.
Ah yes, the audience. True to form, the front stall liberals sided with Oliver’s denunciation of interfering in any other sovereign state’s affairs whilst the dress circle gradually lost interest and, in one case, slipped quietly to sleep. Must have been the Mozart.