The Theatreguide.London Review
Dorfman Theatre 2015
It is axiomatic that a new Tom Stoppard play must be seen, and so even though The Hard Problem is not absolutely top-level Stoppard, I still recommend it.
I have argued before that the B-level work of an A-level writer is almost always more exciting than the A-level work of a B-level writer, and as much as I admire, say, David Hare, I'd much rather see Stoppard at not-quite-his-best than Hare at his best.
Although he is celebrated rightly for his amazing verbal felicity and wit, Stoppard's real greatness lies in his ability to become enthusiastic about some arcane subject (quantum mechanics, landscape gardening, Hamlet) and then not only communicate his knowledge with brilliant clarity but turn the subject into a dramatic metaphor that illuminates what it is like to be human.
In The Hard Problem Stoppard bypasses that metaphorical level by addressing the question directly, and while the information and speculations are communicated as clearly and excitingly as ever, the drama loses some of the texture and emotional power we would hope for.
Forgive me for a few paragraphs now. Because the play is so thoroughly about ideas I'm going to have to talk about its ideas for a while before I can get back to talking about the play.
Stoppard's subject is the brain. Scientists are well on their way toward mapping the zillions of cells and synapses in that super-duper-computer, and can tell you which bits light up when we think certain thoughts and feel certain emotions, and it is now orthodoxy to assert that everything we think of as human – consciousness, free will, emotions, values – could eventually be explained as a biochemical-electrical process.
But where does that leave our sense of self? The hard question for science and philosophy today is whether there is any difference between the brain and the mind, whether we are anything more than super-duper computers. (It's the flip side of the sci-fi standby, the super-duper metal computer that develops consciousness and will.)
Another way of phrasing the question is whether everything we think of as human is just fitness-for-survival techniques resulting from Darwinian breeding. Is altruism just enlightened self-interest? Is a mother's love for her infant just her genes taking care that they get carried on?
One of the smaller problems with The Hard Problem is that Stoppard presents the questions through both mechanical and Darwinian vocabularies at once, somewhat muddying the debate.
A bigger problem is that the play has little more to it than the debate.
Stoppard's characters are almost all brain scientists of various sorts, most of them working in a research institute funded by a stock market zillionaire. They take different positions on whether everything human can be explained mechanically or genetically, or whether there is something more to us, and they argue eloquently and passionately about it. They debate in the office, at dinner parties and in bed.
Stoppard's sympathies are clearly with what might be called the romantic rather than mechanistic side, but he presents both cases fairly, and the characters' behaviours in the rare moments they're not debating don't offer conclusive evidence in either direction.
We learn that the institute's benefactor is funding all this pure science because he hopes to use what they learn about human behaviour to predict how the stock market will operate and thus get even richer, but we also watch people doing things of no value or even some cost to them out of love or other inexplicable emotions.
But the play's informational content and its human stories don't bounce off and enrich each other as they do when Stoppard is at his very best (R&G Are Dead, Jumpers, Arcadia). The story line, which has a lot to do with an adopted child, seems awkwardly laid on top of the ideas and could almost be dispensed with.
Nicholas Hytner ends his tenure as National Theatre head by directing with his accustomed fluidity and clarity, a cast led by Olivia Vinall present the ideas and information smoothly and go as far as they can toward making the human story come alive.
Bob Crowley's functional set is crowned by a light sculpture evoking the workings of the physical brain that I very much hope will be preserved after the run of the show and kept on display somewhere for its sheer beauty.
The Hard Problem is like a very, very good TV science documentary, in which a brilliant and enthusiastic teacher makes some arcane topic both clear and fascinating. It would be nice if it were more, and Stoppard has produced more in the past. But this is still better than almost anyone else can deliver.
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