BWW Reviews: Engaging and Challenging THE VERTICAL HOUR a Meaty Theatrical Dish

Jackie Rens in THE VERTICAL HOUR  Photo credit Pat Bromilow-Downing
Photo credit: Pat Bromilow-Downing

Whichever way you look at it, THE VERTICAL HOUR is an engaging and challenging play. David Hare's 2006 companion piece to his earlier work, STUFF HAPPENS (2004), is an exploration not of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that serves as the key historical event that informs this play and was indeed the topic of the earlier one. Rather, THE VERTICAL HOUR places under the spotlight the way in which political events inform personal politics, how personal politics shape and shift personal ideologies, and whether, in an arena of ideological warfare, a moral way of life is characterised by intervention or standing aside. Hare has given directors and actors the ingredients of a meaty theatrical dish, and audiences a great deal to digest.

THE VERTICAL HOUR focuses on Nadia Blye, a former war correspondent who now lectures at Yale University. A woman who fervently believes that the United States of America had a key role to play in the liberation of the Iraqi people, she has disassociated herself from what the war has become. An action that represented her ideals has failed her and although she uses her experience in the Yugoslav Wars as her claim to the moral high ground, she has come to embody the kind of passivity that she once disdained. When she meets Oliver Lucas, the father of her boyfriend, Philip, she is challenged to confront both her political and personal behaviour and the ideologies in which they are based.

It is clear that, for Hare, the core of the play is in the discussion that takes place between Nadia and Oliver and it is these parts of the play that are most arresting, and also the most demanding for the actors. Nadia is a difficult character to pitch, set up as something of a straight woman against Oliver's wit and intriguing moral ambivalence, with some of the dialogue that Hare has crafted for her remaining rooted in the polemic and never quite distilling into character. Furthermore, the range that the role requires from an actress is vast. She has to appear as strong as the Statue of Liberty at the start, cracking as blows come at her from all sides and crumbling as she moves through an intensely exposing interaction with Oliver late in the play. Ultimately, the question the play asks is about how Nadia should reconstitute herself, and when the answer comes, the play unambiguously reveals its perspective on both the political and personal issues at play.

Jackie Rens and Michael Richard in THE VERTICAL HOUR  Photo credit Pat Bromilow-Downing
Jackie Rens and Michael Richard
Photo credit: Pat Bromilow-Downing

In her portrayal of Nadia, Jackie Rens has laid a solid foundation for a performance that will hopefully come together more organically as Rens has time to play into the role. Communicating Nadia's initial strength better than her vulnerability near the play's end, there was still a sense of watching Rens work as she delivered Nadia's key moments. When that settles, the battle between her and Michael Richard, who plays Oliver, will spark more spontaneously, with the feverish undercurrent that its subtext demands. Richard captures both the wit and pathos that would make Oliver a fascinating man to encounter. Most significantly, Richard reveals the effects that Oliver's self-imposed exile has had on a man whose caprices still shine through his dulled exterior. Richard masterfully expresses in his demeanour the way in which Oliver's current circumstances are wrapped up in episodes from his past; it is quite telling that, as THE VERTICAL HOUR continues, one's empathy for Oliver grows exponentially, clearly shaping the way the drama plays out.

Richard Gau plays the role of Philip, constructed by Hare as a foil for both Nadia and Oliver and coming off as little more than an obvious dramatic device in the play. Although the character itself is flat, Gau does nothing to transform the character from a cypher into a vital human being that exists in the same world as his counterparts. This muffles the conflict that Nadia has to experience for THE VERTICAL HOUR to be at its most compelling. Rens has nothing to push against when it comes to Nadia's dealings with Gau's Philip, making her seem like a mother trying to calm a little boy who walks around stamping his feet or clenching his jaw.

Two cameo roles appearing in scenes that bookend THE VERTICAL HOUR are played by Jaco van Rensburg and Sinakho Zokuta. Van Rensburg plays Dennis, a student who stirs up something in Nadia as she heads off on holiday with Philip, while Zokuta plays Terri, a young woman whose own experiences allow Nadia to open up about how her experience at the Lucas family manse in Wales has affected her. Both deliver clean character work, but both need to watch - as does Rens - for inconsistencies in their accent work. On opening night, there was also the feeling that the company was speaking at and past one another rather than connecting as part of a tightly knit ensemble. The evidence came in the form of a number of dropped cues. All being well, that aspect of the production will have been tightened up by now.

Jackie Rens and Richard Gau in THE VERTICAL HOUR Photo credit Pat Bromilow-Downing
Jackie Rens and Richard Gau
Photo credit: Pat Bromilow-Downing

The direction of the play is handled by Fred Abrahamse, directly following his work on DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS and ONE ARM. While his staging is as meticulously handled as in those two productions, it is clear that THE VERTICAL HOUR needed a firmer hand in shaping the performances so as to preserve the fine line the play treads in the deliberation of its themes. Because of the way Hare has written the piece, with his protagonist being slightly less well-crafted as his antagonist, balancing the dynamic between Nadia and Oliver is a task placed on the director's shoulders.

The key piece in the scenic design of the play, a credit that is overlooked in the playbill for the show along with the those for the lighting, sound and costume design, is a raked patio flanked on two sides by flats with warped designs of the national flags of the United States and the United Kingdom. The distortion of the Stars and Stripes neatly captures the essence of Nadia's distressed ideologies, but the juxtaposition of the two flags to represent the clashing perspectives in the play as essentially and unequivocally British and American viewpoints is reductive. At its core, THE VERTICAL HOUR is not primarily about the clashing ideologies of nations, but of people. The flag motif is carried through into the costume designs of the two students, in which context the imagery comes across a little gimmicky, although the rest of the costumes work well.

The first production of THE VERTICAL HOUR came before THE HURT LOCKER, HOMELAND and ZERO DARK THIRTY, at a time when the American public perhaps could not digest issues that cut so close to the bone. The fast-selling UK premiere at the Royal Court Theatre two years later debuted to audiences who had had time to stew over things, with the balance between public and personal politics in the piece by all accounts more evenly served. The first performances of THE VERTICAL HOUR in South Africa take place at a time when political conflicts seem to be escalating once more, allowing audiences here to consider where they stand on Gaza, Syria, Sudan and - yes - Iraq. It serves up the perfect opportunity for reflecting on one's own personal politics, so if that is the kind of theatrical experience for which you are hungering, a trip to Theatre on the Bay (or the Montecasino Theatre and Studio, where the show will transfer in October) should prove filling.

THE VERTICAL HOUR runs at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town until 27 September on Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, with a matinee on Saturday 27 September at 5pm, with bookings being handled by Computicket. There is no performance on 24 September. The run at the Studio Theatre at Montecasino is from 1 October - 8 November on Wednesdays to Fridays at 8:15pm, with a Saturday matinees at 5:15pm and Sunday matinees at 3:15pm. Tickets for the Johannesburg run are also available through Computicket.

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From This Author David Fick

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