David Hare has made his reputation as a dramatist who shows how peoples individual lives are inextricably bound up with the political context in which they live. His latest work is a brilliant addition to this approach, with personal relationships unravelling against the background of American post-9/11 foreign policy.
Premiered to mixed reviews on Broadway in 2006, The Vertical Hour has been misleadingly described as a play about Iraq. But unlike Stuff Happens, in which Hare speculated on Bush and Blairs private conversations leading up to the war, this play is not concerned with the specificities of the Iraq war, even though the subject has a significant bearing on the characters relations. It is actually a subtle dissection of how our psychological lives and our actions in the external world interact.
Politics is about the reconciliation of the irreconcilable, according to Nadia, a former war correspondent now lecturer in International Relations at Yale University. But her conviction in the ability of academics rational debate to influence public policy is crumbling, just as she became disillusioned that reporting from the frontline could help conflict lead to compromise.
Nadias belief in not letting emotional issues interfere with objective decision-making is put to the test when she accompanies her physical therapist boyfriend Philip to visit his father Oliver, a GP who lives in an isolated house in the Welsh countryside. In a weekend which will change all their lives, Nadia and Oliver despite the differences in their politics: she believes the US has a moral duty to intervene in trouble spots like Iraq, while he is totally opposed to this modern form of colonialism become attracted to each other, while Philip feels increasingly insecure.
All three characters are haunted by events from their past, and have tried to escape painful memories. It turns out that non-journalistic experiences in Bosnia led to Nadias career change, while a fatal car crash changed Olivers life and Philips move to the States was motivated by his unhappy family background. The latent tensions and resentments between them come to the surface as wine is drunk on a terrace one balmy evening.
The great success of Hares highly intelligent and often very witty play is to convincingly portray the changing dynamics of three individuals against a background of political discussion. Sometimes, Hares characters sound like they are just taking part in an intellectual debate, but here we feel they are confused people trying to find a way through their tangled lives.
Jeremy Herrins laudably clear and uncluttered direction enables the cast to deliver Hares thought-provoking dialogue with maximum focus. Indira Varma gives a persuasive performance as Nadia, outwardly assured of where she is going but inwardly disorientated. Anton Lesser also excels, by giving Olivers aggressive scepticism an intriguingly vulnerable edge. And Tom Riley shows how Philips long-standing antagonism towards his father threatens to undermine his carefully constructed new life.
It seems that rational behaviour is always subject to the subconscious, just as personal issues affect political decisions.