David Hare’s The Vertical Hour is set against the backdrop of the Iraq invasion of 2003, a probably fortuitous but nevertheless germane revival, given Parliament’s recent vote. But left-wing, anti-war agitprop it is not. The dense and inert two-and-a-half-hour play is, instead, a cerebral look at the idea of reconciliation. As one of the main characters, Nadia, a liberal American war correspondent turned university professor, explains, “politics is about the reconciliation of the irreconcilable”. The difficulty and deficiency of that idea alone tells you a lot about The Vertical Hour – don’t expect any happily-ever-after here.
What little ‘action’ there is takes place in rural Shropshire sandwiched between two rather clumsy and strange scenes in Nadia’s office in Yale University. Nadia, played superbly by Thusitha Jayasundera, travels with her boyfriend to his father’s post-divorce retreat to play out the tensions of deeply held opinions, of irreparable families, of private and public lives and, ultimately, of individual experiences and perceptions. The play is more about the process of reconciliation, never really showing a final outcome – try not to read too much into that with regards to Iraq.
Speaking of which, the play’s debate on the invasion of Iraq keenly shows the fallibility and humanity of the two main characters. The strong, moral-based positions they are known by others to have taken on the topic are shown as just the opinions of individuals, nothing more than slanted summations of an impossibly difficult situation.
And, surprisingly, this gives us hope. It shows us that strength and passion cannot transform opinion into fact, reflecting the fallibility of the politicians who have taken us, time and again, into conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere. We’re all just trying to do our best, getting by on our beliefs. In the end, when Nadia returns to foreign reporting, the only place in which she feels she’s making an impact, and when Oliver, Philip’s father, confronts his horrific past, there is a weird sense of progress. Not tangible, quantifiable success, but the feeling that not everything has gone to shit, that we’re getting on.
The play provides enough laughs and debating material for an enjoyable evening at the smart new Park Theatre in the Guardian heartland north London. The small cast is keen and, with certain members, the performance is incredibly realistic. Nadia and Oliver are both fascinating characters and far from being the stereotypes associated with the arguments over the Iraq invasion that they so easily could have been. Their back-stories feel immensely deep-rooted and the play’s issues so grand and over-arching, but do not expect to come away feeling any kind of conclusion or resolve.
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