The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem – Dorfman Space @ National Theatre, until 27 May 2015 (Tickets)

This production will be broadcast to cinemas on 16 Aprilthe_hard_problem398.jpg

The ‘hard problem’of the title refers to ‘consciousness’; a concept under assault from a battalion of neuroscientists laying claim to greater and greater certainty in their understanding of brain functionality as something that can be deconstructed to the micro-level of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters. As neuroscience is in the ascendency we are left with awkward questions over whether humans are left increasingly shackled by the tyranny of genetic determinism? Where does our freedom of thought – our freedom to act in ways contrary to the principles of evolutionary science – fit into the equation? In essence does the philosophical ‘mind’, as opposed to the functional ‘brain’, exist?

These are fascinating questions and truly weighty topics. It is the sort of subject we have come to expect from Tom Stoppard, who has demonstrated his formidable intelligence on countless occasions over the last forty years and in so doing has contributed some of Britain’s finest plays of the post-war era. This includes two genuine classics in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia and many others that found audacious approaches to create unabashedly literate drama enthused with a wit that refused to bow to the lowest common denominator.

Stoppard is 77 years old and it is his first new play for nine years. So perhaps the hard problem for the audience is reconciling itself to the idea that the play – quite possibly his last – is a bit of a dud. Critical reactions have been mixed and supported by an undercurrent of good will but, on reflection, can anyone seriously challenge the view that this is but a pale imitation of what has come before?

daisy-jacob-as-cathy-and-anthony-calf-as-jerry-93917 credit Alastair Muir

The play suffers primarily from a lack of drama. Things happen, time passes, the plot resorts to rather clichéd contrivances (the less said about the adopted daughter storyline the better – although Daisy Jacob was excellent and showed a precocious assurance playing the young girl, easily one of the best things in it) and one comes away finding it very difficult to care about any of it.

None of it feels real, you can almost hear gears turning as the plot creaks ever onwards. Perhaps the hard problem is in how to bridge the gap between audience anticipation and reality. There is a mismatch in our expectations. We came hoping for a new arcadia and instead ended up with Welwyn Garden City.

If this had been a four-part Sunday evening drama on Channel 4 I would have been hooked but £50 tickets in a publically subsidised theatre is an entirely different proposition. The scenes even come ready packaged for the TV;  the set-ups are tailor-made for simple, fixed-camera situations – a bedroom, an office, a dinner party and a hotel – and there is a very episodic feel as we move through key scenes in the life of Olivia Vinall’s Hilary.

I am absolutely persuaded of Vinall’s talent. The speed of her rise through the ranks has been nothing short of phenomenal and it is worth reflecting that her last three stage roles have been Juliet in the West End, and then Desdemona and Cordelia on the Olivier stage. You don’t get to do that without demonstrating serious ability.

However here she feels cut adrift; Hilary never seems anchored in reality. It is not so much that Vinall is miscast in the role but rather the role is miscast in the play. Even with the much-worn trope of a gently lecherous boss being used to provide reasons as to why she was hired, it is impossible to believe that somewhere as prestigious as the Kroll Institute for Brain Science would have considered hiring someone with virtually no pedigree and little sign of particularly special talents. Indeed whenever she is allowed to air her views, she is rarely able to mount a coherent defence of her beliefs at even a basic level and is later roundly mocked for an incredibly naïve paper circulated for an academic conference.

Vinall, and the rest of the cast, try to breathe life into characters that often consist of little more than Wikipedia summaries of psychological devices, cognitive theory and high finance. The opening Olivia-Vinall-and-Damien Moloney Hard Problem Credit Alastair Muirscene consists of ten minutes of exposition around the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Useful for the audience perhaps but again difficult to believe that someone about to be hired as psychology research assistant in a top lab would need the implications of one of the most famous experiments in game theory spelled out to them.

The end result is a disappointment; an interesting premise that never develops into anything substantive. Each individual element has been done better elsewhere; Enron or Margin Call present far more insightful looks into the world of high finance, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Incognito delve into hard science with greater acuity and nimbleness, and academia has already been explored more interestingly by Stoppard himself.

It is not the review I had hoped to write but it is one that perhaps should have been expected. How many artists retain their greatness to the end? It is no shame that they continue to write but they do so in the knowledge there are slowly chipping away at their own legacy; a point that Stewart Lee captures in this wonderful, tongue-in-cheek segment on the near-deified Bill Hicks.

The hard problem is ultimately how to ensure that this is nothing more than a best forgotten coda in the career of the great Sir Tom Stoppard. He rightly deserves his legacy and his plays have already become essential parts of the British canon. His reputation can afford a minor blip and will live far longer than memories of what could well be his last stage work.


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