At long last theatre goers in London have had the chance to see the UK premiere of the celebrated British playwright Sir David Hare’s latest play “The Vertical Hour”, at the Royal Court Theatre. Seats sold out early, with the play selling faster than any new play in the history of the theatre. “The Vertical Hour” is Hare’s second Iraq-related play. The first, “Stuff Happens”, took its title from the phrase uttered by the then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in shrugging off the looting of Baghdad during the 2003 invasion.
There was shock in 2006 when Hare decided not to stage the premier of “The Vertical Hour” at the National Theatre in London, where 13 of his previous works had premiered. Instead, he took the play straight to New York where it was directed on Broadway by the British director Sam Mendes with a cast including Hollywood star Julianne Moore and British actor Bill Nighy.
Hare explained that the reason for his decision was his frustration over the way the National Theatre had handled “Stuff Happens” two years earlier when far more people wanted to see the play than could get tickets. In Hare’s view, the National closed the production of that play too early.
“The Vertical Hour” deals with the Iraq war in a more oblique manner than “Stuff Happens”. It explores the attitudes of individuals towards the war, and the interweaving of political arguments and private lives. Hare has a gift for making compelling theatre from political discussions between his characters. “The Vertical Hour” has virtually no action, but the characters are far from being mere mouthpieces articulating opposing positions on Iraq and so-called liberal interventionism. For a play with a serious theme, there were plenty of jokes and laughs over the ironies of politics and the Iraq war, and over the deceptions and delusions of personal behavior.
The play revolves around a visit by US academic Nadia Blye (Indira Varma), and her British boyfriend Philip (Tom Riley) to a house in a remote corner of England where Nadia meets for the first time Philip’s doctor father Oliver (Anton Lesser).
The part of Nadia is a plum role for British actress Varma (34), who was born in the city of Bath in south-west England to an Indian father and Swiss mother. Since making her acting debut in Mira Nair’s film “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” in 1996, Varma has tackled a wide variety of roles in film, theatre and TV. Nadia is her biggest theatre role to date.
Nadia is a former foreign correspondent who is now a professor of international relations at Yale University, appearing frequently on TV and at think tanks. Slender in build, with fine facial bone structure, Varma portrays the lively Nadia as strong but with an underlying fragility.
Anton Lesser, who plays Oliver, is a leading British classical actor. He is shorter than Varma, and has a lightweight physique compared with his physical therapist son. And yet something in him draws Nadia. Oliver is witty, waspish and enjoys playing psychological games. It is not altogether clear whether his aim is to undermine his son, and influence Nadia. He quotes to Nadia the definition of a doctor as “someone who tells you the truth and stays with you until the end.”
Oliver has retreated from life for a reason that is at first a secret, and is now living in a virtually unpopulated part of Shropshire, on the English-Welsh border. He was once a highly-regarded kidney specialist but is now a general practitioner.
Nadia supported the invasion of Iraq, whereas Oliver was opposed to it, and from the start he engages her in verbal sparring. Nadia had been invited to the White House to advise George W Bush on Iraq. She was in favor of what she insists on calling “the liberation...I don’t think the president would have asked me if I wasn’t.” She believes strongly that the invasion of Iraq was justified to end the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. This belief in “humane intervention” is partly rooted in her experiences as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans where the West did nothing to alleviate the suffering and 300,000 people were killed. She says of Iraq: “I don’t think the mess that’s followed invalidates the original decision.”
Oliver uses a medical analogy to explain his opposition to the invasion. “I knew who the surgeon was going to be, so I had a fair idea of what the operation would look like.” He argues that “the West’s been using Islam as a useful enemy for as long as anyone can remember. ‘Shall we go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard? Shall we not?’ It’s from Henry V.”
There are unresolved undercurrents between the three characters. Philip has a lot of suppressed rage towards his father for what he sees as his cruel philandering while married to Philip’s mother. Oliver prefers to explain it to Nadia as an “open marriage”. Oliver advises Philip not to show self doubt in Nadia’s presence, and says she picked Philip out because he appeared to be strong. Philip suspects Oliver of having an intention to try to seduce Nadia away from him,
It is only in the course of a long discussion with Oliver during a sleepless night that Nadia admits that in Iraq “we certainly made a mess of it didn’t we?” She is upset, and momentarily she and Oliver hold hands. She tells him of her love affair with a danger-loving Polish reporter she was with in the Balkans and then met again in Iraq. After the trauma of the love affair she went back to America and met Philip, but the visit to Oliver has shaken up her ease in the safety of her relationship with Philip.
Oliver confesses the secret of why he retreated to Shropshire. He had given a lift in a car to a woman he had been having an affair with and the car crashed, killing the woman as well as an old man in another car. The woman turned out to be married, and her husband had threatened to sue him.
The play is framed by first and last scenes in which Nadia is in tutor mode with a student. The first is a young man who declares he is love with her, despite having a fiancée. The final scene is with a black female student, Terri, who has decided to leave Yale after a painful breakup with her boyfriend. At the end of their discussion Nadia says to her: “I used to be a war correspondent. Recently I’ve noticed I miss it. I’m going back to Iraq”. Philip has already told the audience that after Nadia and Philip returned to America he heard nothing from them for some time. “In fact, next time I read Nadia’s name it was in another context entirely. When I saw what it was, forgive me, it made me smile.”
Saudi Gazette, March 3 2008
credit for photos: Keith Pattison