The Vertical Hour at Park Theatre. Thusitha Jayasundera (Nadia) and Pepter Lunkuse (Terri). Photo credit TEA Films
In a war-zone, ‘the vertical hour’ refers to the critical time-period when - following an injury - medical assistance is most effective; a good rule-of-thumb for the theatregoer.
‘The Vertical Hour’ play starts with a character talking to himself about ‘the accident’, while George Bush Jr. can be heard rallying the troops for the second war in Iraq.
Shortly afterwards, at Yale University in the U.S., a female teacher is talking to her male student about the definition - and indeed, the point - of politics.
She tries to convince him that liberal discourse - and democracy in particular - is the most effective method system of balancing out humanity’s unfairness or - at the very least - “reconciling the irreconcilable”. Her student - monied, articulate, and cynical - refuses to accept that political analysis should stretch further than “We (The U.S.A.) won… now they’re all copying us.”
The lighting and sound are well done. The acting is solid.
Then he drops the bombshell that he’s in love with her.
This about-face - while humourous - is symptomatic of the play; people say ’stuff’, but it’s as if the ‘heart’ and the ‘head’ are ever so slightly disconnected. But maybe that’s the point.
After these two short introductory scenes, we are deposited into deepest Shropshire where the aforementioned teacher ‘Nadia’ has accompanied her ex-pat boyfriend ‘Philip’ on a visit to his estranged father ‘Oliver’.
For the next hour-and-a-half we are met with tales of Freudian impulses, Oedipal complexes, and war-zones (both domestic and foreign).We find out that Nadia (Thusitha Jayasundera) - a former American foreign correspondent - has left frontline reporting following a ‘traumatic experience’, and is now a college lecturer, a published author, a ’terrorism-expert for hire’, and a pro-Iraqi war advocate.
Oliver (Peter Davidson) is a liberal, 58-year-old GP, living out in ‘the middle of nowhere’ after having had ’an accident’, and a messy divorce.
Philip (Finlay Robertson) is a lifestyle coach living in America and, having escaped his childhood demons, is attempting to exorcise them. The dialogue (mainly between ‘Oliver’ and ‘Nadia’) works best when dealing with U.S foreign policy and UK parochialism: “You’re building an empire-we’re dismantling one”. It becomes less interesting when dealing with the more ‘personal’ stuff. Alas, ‘personal’ is where we spend most of our time.
‘Nadia’ and ‘Philip’ recount to each other the reasons for having left their respective ‘battle-grounds’ (the nature of both Nadia’s trauma and Oliver’s accident’ are revealed), but the ‘conflict’ between them seems unnecessary and unearned.
Their cross-cultural discourse on the best ways to find, keep, and enjoy love and life, feels both forced and academic.
‘Philip’ - ostensibly the common denominator - appears to be little more than a ‘device’ to get them together and talking (to us); in fact, as the play progresses, he simply regresses into a sulky teenager.
By the end, Nadia - back at Yale University - is having another conversation with a student; this time the young female is threatening to leave her studies because of a (lost) ‘true’ love; Nadia talks her out of it. This mirrors Nadia’s own journey and - while the bookending device seems a little too (ex) pat - at least there is resolution.
The Vertical Hour at Park Theatre.Thusitha Jayasundera (Nadia) and Peter Davison (Oliver). Photo credit TEA Films
The dialogue - though often insightful - feels like a series of monologues; less a game of tennis (back-and-forth), than of snooker (where each player takes turn to play while the other sits, watches and contemplates). This is compounded by the lack of physical movement and/or interaction between the actors.
Maybe the actors’ static posture and physical distance is a directorial choice. At a certain stage, one of the characters posits a theory that, at an early period in ‘our’ development, we “choose” what path to follow, which ‘gods’ to worship, what/who to care about and - ultimately, whom to ‘be’.
Presumably, left to our own devices, these choices would be easier to uphold; the difficulty comes (the theory goes) when interacting with others.
It’s interesting to note that the one true moment of physical connectedness in the play soon leads to separation.
The set is well thought out: a lovely evocation of a suburban terrace and a U.S. flag. The lighting and sound are well done. The direction is perfunctory. The acting is solid.
David Hare’s play seems to be about confronting - and taking responsibility for – that which is ‘ours’, whilst recognising that which belongs to others, or is no longer relevant.
Or it might simply be suggesting that we should engage with each other only at times of extreme crisis and, at all other times, we’d be better off separate - if not alone.
Not a passion play, then?
Info: The Vertical Hour is at the Park Theatre until 26th Oct 2014 | Book tickets