A play discussing the Iraq War is perhaps not the easiest sell. But the fact that The Vertical Hour is by acclaimed English playwright Sir David Hare, and was a massive Broadway and West End hit, immediately draws the attention.
With a South African cast directed by Fred Abrahamse, the story follows an extended conversation between a highly regarded young politics lecturer at Yale and her boyfriend’s English father who she is meeting for the first time.
There is almost no action on stage and all interest and tension hinges on the dialogue which centres on whether or not it was right for the Americans to engage in the occupation of Iraq.
During the conversation, Nadia Blye, the politics lecturer played by Jackie Rens, learns something about herself and what she really wants out of life. She is angered by the apathy of the masses: “It is so much easier to do nothing than to do something,” she rants. But we watch as a sharp light is shown on her own choices and, in a Silence of the Lambs-style “quid pro quo”, on those of her boyfriend’s father, and the consequences of the choices made by the protagonists.
A serious dialogue, with the occasional humorous tidbit, keeps the audience on its toes, particularly in the first half of the play. Each character makes good points regarding the relevant and contemporary issues at hand, but as the conversation wears on the focus becomes increasingly self-indulgent, culminating in a fairly predictable aha-moment on the part of Blye which brings the story to a close.
A play with so little action requires actors to find rhythm and momentum with fine-tuned subtlety, and while Michael Richard, as Dr Oliver Lucas, is utterly at home in the role and enchanting to watch, Rens is a little less consistent. Nonetheless, faced with a veritable mountain of dialogue, Rens admirably balances her character’s confidence and vulnerability, her certainty and her doubt. By comparison Richard Gau’s performance as Phillip Lucas, the son, is lacklustre – a shame given the dynamic his character presents and the depth it should have given to the interpersonal aspect of the play.
Two small roles played by Jaco van Rensburg and Sinakho Zokuta,are used as foils for Rens’ character at the beginning and end of the play and add a welcome change of scenery. Both van Rensburg and Zokuta carry their roles well, with Zokuta in particular delivering a colourful and believable performance.
Altogether there are parts of this production which are truly thought-provoking and engrossing, but if you’re hoping to see a version of The Vertical Hour that lives up to the acclaim it’s had oversees, you may leave feeling a little disappointed.
The Vertical Hour runs at the Theatre on the Bay until 27 September 2014.