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Review Round-up: Time for Hare’s Hour of Glory?

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David Hare’s post-9/11 play The Vertical Hour - the first of the British writer’s plays to be seen first in New York - received its UK premiere last night (22 January 2008, previews from 27 January) at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).

The Vertical Hour centres on American war correspondent-turned-academic Nadia Blye. She is sure of her place in the world and her opinion of it, and she knows exactly what her stance is on Iraq. Until, that is, she meets an equally opinionated and lethally charming man - her boyfriend Phillip's father, Oliver - over a weekend in Shropshire. Oliver’s intervention has far-reaching consequences for them all.

Hollywood’s Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy starred as Nadia and Oliver in the world premiere, which was directed by former Donmar Warehouse artistic director Sam Mendes and opened in November 2006 for a four-month run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre. Although Nighy received strong notices, the play itself garnered mixed reviews and was overlooked in the 2007 Tony Awards.

The new Royal Court production, which continues until 1 March 2008, stars Indira Varma and Anton Lesser (pictured), with Tom Riley as Phillip. The production is directed by Jeremy Herrin and designed by Mike Britton, lighting by Howard Harrison and sound by Nick Powell.

First night critics seemed better disposed to Hare’s “Shavian” play on this side of the Atlantic, despite the absence of Bill Nighy, missed by many who saw it in New York missed. Nevertheless, in Herrin’s production, Hare’s text still provides “a thrilling contest of wills between two perfectly-matched opponents” and “a mature blend of the personal and the political” - Indira Varma's “excellent” and “stridingly confident” Nadia, and Anton Lesser’s “testy” and “spiky” Oliver – making it “a major, unmissable theatrical event”. There were voices of dissent from others who warned of the play’s “boredom” factor.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Jeremy Herrin’s admirable new staging in Sloane Square is a triumph of clarity, sensitive, well-judged acting and supple argument propounded with intelligence and passion. If the occasion doesn’t achieve full theatrical combustion, it is because the actors are projecting more of the play than themselves. The equation may not yet be quite perfect. But this is, undoubtedly, one of Hare’s best plays, a mature blend of the personal and the political. Almost every line makes you think. The playwright allows less time than usual for his trademark jokes. The characters are drawn inexorably to the light of their own realisation: that teaching politics isn’t enough; that having a view of the world may not be enough; that we must take responsibility for our actions, or lack of them … The play – as only drama can do – makes sense of global anxieties in the tiny detail of our own lives. And makes those lives seem important, too. This in itself is a wonderful achievement in a major, unmissable theatrical event.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Hare also follows the Shavian practice of giving comparable weight to contradictory ideas. Nadia's arguments for interventionism derive from horror at the West's indifference to global suffering. They are countered by Oliver's critique of the dubious rationale of the Iraq invasion and its disastrous consequences. If you want a definition of good drama, this is it: the confrontation of two ultimately irreconcilable ideas both eloquently stated. Hare's play is not perfect: the US scenes bookending the action of Nadia with her students are more point-scoring than plausible. And her final gesture strikes me as romantic. But this is still a rich, intellectually gripping play that gains immeasurably in London from the balance between the two performances. Indira Varma's excellent Nadia has an intellectual and physical poise that buckles as she acknowledges her frailties and the world's imperfections. And, where Bill Nighy's charisma was dominant in New York, Anton Lesser plays Oliver as a testy interrogator, delighted to do battle with his son's lover, but reveals his solitary vulnerability. Tom Riley also articulates the son's Oedipal hang-ups in a production which, played on a bare stage, offers a thrilling contest of wills between two perfectly-matched opponents.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The play now strikes me as schematic and so infuriatingly verbose as to make Shaw seem taciturn. On one level, this is yet another play about Iraq … But without Nighy lighting up the stage as the GP, this potentially fraught triangle seems contrived and artificial, just a sign of a struggling playwright desperately trying, and failing, to lend his play emotional depth … Jeremy Herrin’s production does little to galvanise the garrulous script, and while I don’t want to be too hard on Anton Lesser, his performance as the once philandering doctor with the guilty secret seems strangely detached. Indira Varma gives a stronger performance than Julianne Moore managed on Broadway, but one wishes Hare had given her character a hint of humour, while as the song, the luckless Tom Riley struggles in vain to animate a stillborn character. It may be called The Vertical Hour, but it is likely to leave many in the audience prone with boredom.”
    • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “The play is unleavened by much theatrical action. Although there are five characters, most of the work falls to the girlfriend, Nadia (Indira Varma), and the father, Oliver (Anton Lesser). These two do much of their talking while sitting down or standing still, at a distance of about three feet. The only real stage relief is from various shadings of purply-blue background. This being Hare, the flavour of the discussion is always political. There is little descent into emotionalism. I suspect he may be a very male playwright. It also used to be possible to describe him as left-wing but I'm not sure that is completely right nowadays. I do believe the old boy may be coming round at last. Sir David has created two intriguing, gamey characters: Nadia with her swaggering American insistence that she knows every argument about Iraq, the spiky Oliver with his nagging European cynicism. Miss Varma and Mr Lesser, she stridingly confident, he angular and squeaky, are perfectly matched and deserve the highest praise. This is not a show for people who enjoy 'a nice night out'. It is Shavian in its verbal intensity. Some might call that windiness. Others, more accurately, would see it as a serious writer's bounty.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Funny how a switch of place and time can also change one’s view of a play … You could call the play discursive, because it is, very. You might also call it evidence of Hare’s most attractive qualities: his questing curiosity, his lively intelligence. But the focus remains hard to see. Perhaps it’s about how private feelings shape our public opinions and vice versa. Perhaps it’s about the need for negotiation in both spheres. Perhaps it’s about the difficulty of knowing who we are and what we want. The trouble is less with the debates you feel Hare is having with himself, more with the plausibility of his private world … And Iraq? Well, Nadia has been in favour of the invasion, thinking evil must be faced and beaten. Oliver is fiercely against, for all the obvious reasons, leaving her wanly to concede it’s all ‘a mess’. Hare is fair-minded enough to let her put her case, but there’s no doubt where he too stands. Not pro-war.”

      - by Tom Atkins

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