When The Vertical Hour premiered in London in 2008 it was the fasted selling show in the history of the Royal Court Theatre. Now, six years later, its timely revival at the Park proves David Hare’s play about the fallout caused by the Iraq War hasn’t aged a day – there’s not a grey hair in sight, nor a doddery step to be found. It’s an impressive feat because, for all the positive talk of uncanny timing – weirdly uncanny in fact, to the point where one imagines the show’s producers glued to their scrolling news feeds yesterday with a dark glint in their eye – the spotlight brought about by the newly-approved Iraqi air strikes reveal it not just to be a thoughtful and eloquent piece of political theatre, but a more thoughtful and a more eloquent one than I had previously thought it.
Nadia Blye, played by a steely Thusitha Jayasundera, is a war correspondent turned public academic turned one-time adviser to president Bush, who has come on holiday to England with her new boyfriend, Philip, to meet his semi-estranged father, Oliver. Nadia is a tough nut to crack. She’s either a liberal with a brain or a conservative with a heart, and I’m not sure the play has decided which. She’s headstrong, certainly, and fiercely intelligent, aspects that Jayasundera’s portrayal really bring out. She’s also emotionally literate in that way that only Americans seem to be able to muster. But as a romantic figure I am less convinced – her chemistry with Finlay Robertson’s Philip is non-existent. Only with Peter Davison’s Oliver do we get any real sense of parity – the pair dance and spar perfectly, each toying with the idea of fucking or bashing the other’s brains out while being curtailed by their filial relationship and the quaint politics of their English country garden setting.
For me, it’s Davison’s performance that sticks the play together. It’s a measured portrayal, and a complex one, retaining the central ambiguity: is this a thoughtful man, struggling to be reconciled with a son who hates him, or calculating one, eager to make a play at anything in a skirt? It’s a performance with heart, wit and melancholy, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
Robertson’s Philip is less successful. A physiotherapist and owner of three private clinics in the US, this is a man Nadia falls for because he is supposed to get things done: he’s a fixer of roofs and a mender of bad backs. But Robertson plays him like a sulky teen, like someone whose paranoia borders on the flamboyant, who is fixated by his father’s transgressions both real and imagined. He’s a wet; a person far more likely to storm off stage and listen to Marilyn Manson then put up some shelves.
Other than that, the action is fairly well marshalled by director Nigel Douglas, who brings out the argument and counter-argument in Hare’s elegantly-written dialogue very well. That said, there are definite periods in the first and second halves where the pace is allowed to slacken, where the driving rhythm of Oliver and Nadia’s verbal squash game is allowed to peter out. And that’s a real shame.
Still, the success of the play is not so much in that to and fro – eloquent as it is – but in the scathing question that comes out of it: with lives overrun by sex, selfishness and all the little emptiness of love, how much do we really care about the suffering of others and how much can we realistically expect to? How much can we assume to extricate ourselves from the human condition and actually do any good? It’s a question today as pertinent -and as unanswerable – as it was last time.