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 ascendancy 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?
The play suffers primarily from a lack of drama. Things happen, time passes, the plot resorts to rather clichéd contrivances and one comes away finding it very difficult to care about any of it.