Cloudy, cloudy knight

David Hare's latest play offers a wealth of ideas, but a garbled message

The Vertical Hour Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

Among the many ideas that do not bear too much examination in David Hare's new play is the thought that you can climb a remote hill in the middle of the night and enjoy a "great view". Since The Vertical Hour is set in a house on the Shropshire borders so remote that you can turn 360 degrees and "see barely a single building", the trek up would surely be both difficult and unrewarding. But then that's much what the play itself offers: a hard slog that leaves you largely in the dark at the end.

The set-up has Philip, an English medical graduate making money as a "well-being coach" in America, returning to Shropshire to introduce his American fiancée, Nadia, to his estranged father, Oliver. Philip, played by Tom Riley (who gives what welly he can to an underwritten part), dislikes his father, blaming his philandering for the end of his parents' marriage and his mother's mental instability.

Father and son disagree about everything except that Nadia, who teaches "terrorism" at Yale, having given up a job as a war reporter, is "brilliant and beautiful" - two qualities of which, despite the humanity she brings to her long part, the actress Indira Varma struggles to convince us on stage. (One of Hare's principal technical shortcomings as a playwright, incidentally, is a tendency to tell rather than show. "The view was great" is not how to make us believe in a great view.)

As a heroine, Nadia is saddled by Hare with "issues". These are her "retreat" from journalism into the academy and her unlikely disbelief in psychology, a flaw that blinds her to her own true motives. Over a long, insomniac night arguing with Oliver, she is "cured" of these afflictions, although there is the suspicion, much voiced by his son, that Oliver just wants to get her knickers off. At the end of the play, we hear she has broken up with Philip, though quite how Oliver's pontificating has achieved this, I would be hard-pressed to explain.

It would be more plausible if Oliver were a charismatic moral tutor. Instead, in Anton Lesser's portrayal, he is a shouty, self-righteous little man and a know-all. He justifies his infidelities by saying that his generation believed "the more people you sleep with, the more you learn". We gather he was wrong in this belief, but punished too severely when one of his mistresses was killed in a car crash as he drove her home. Oliver is still a Good Man. He is a GP.

Hare is sometimes spoken of as a Shavian playwright but he is a much more middlebrow thinker. His rapport with a certain mid-range of intellectual curiosity makes him a very capable adaptor of works for the cruder medium of film and, as in Via Dolorosa (1998) and The Permanent Way (2003), he has proved an excellent journalist whose medium happens to be theatre. But close your eyes and his plays of ideas - Skylight (1995), Amy's View (1997), The Breath of Life (2002), and now this - are little more than op-ed columns clashing inconclusively in the night.

Ideas tumble out of The Vertical Hour, obstructing rather than illuminating the narrative. Some arrive as little more than suggestions for columns, others as the finished articles themselves. When Philip asks his father in the morning what he and Nadia talked about, he replies: "Your mother. Iraq. The woman I killed. Politics. Solitude. Love." The list is far from complete. He forgets, for instance, to mention that before Nadia interrupted him he was reading a book on linguistics and that he told her: "People are beginning to feel it may be the key to consciousness." Fancy that.

The characters' personal dilemmas have a tangential relationship to Hare's medium-sized themes but are never made to matter to us. The awkwardness that Hare has in shoehorning the personal into the political is demonstrated in the very first scene, set in a Yale tutorial, where a neocon student suddenly declares his love for Nadia. It is sorely visible again at the end when Nadia announces: "I'm going back to Iraq!" - where, Oliver has niggled out of her, she left not only the Real World, but a more exciting lover.

"By night the panoply of the stars," Oliver says, advertising the supposed view from Shep Hill. Perhaps some of the Court's well-heeled, grey-haired audience did leave grateful to Sir David for introducing them to a firmament of new ideas. For me, the knight on this occasion was as clear as mud.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Uncle Vanya
Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-ThamesThe critics are loving this first effort from Peter Hall’s new theatre. Ends 9 February.

Ring Round the Moon
Playhouse Theatre, London WC2
Twin trouble. Hilarious in the 1950s, will it now induce the old Anouilh?

Merrily We Roll Along
Watermill, Newbury
A production of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway satire that does just that.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty