The Hard Problem at the Dorfman
In his first play in nine years, the endlessly awarded playwright Sir Tom Stoppard plays to his strengths. This science-backed, philosophically-infused intellectual sparring will trigger vigorous activity in your brain, which, coincidentally, is the organ at the very centre of The Hard Problem.
Stoppard’s heroine is Hilary (Olivia Vinall), a 20-something psychology major who’s about to embark on a career at a fancy brain research institute backed by a brash billionaire, Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf). Hilary is an idealist, perhaps even a moral absolutist, who is not satisfied by science’s answers to the questions: what is consciousness? What is “goodness”? Is there any such thing as a selfless good deed? Or, stripped down to its bare parts, does a “good deed” by a single person amount to nothing more than the rational behaviour of an evolved individual seeking to maximise gain and minimise loss in a competitive world? Does the mind even exist, or is it all just an illusion of the brain?
Hilary is passionately dedicated to understanding consciousness and the origins of life for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds. She defends her idealistic turf against the mockery of her sometime-lover and ex-tutor Spike (played with likeable assholery by Damien Molony), her boss Leo (Jonathan Coy), and the slings and arrows of the scientific academy, which come to a head when her religious persuasions are revealed.
Stoppard, deft as ever, weaves discussion of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, Game Theory, moral philosophy and artificial intelligence with factoid snippets about hedge funds, vampire bats, parasitic cattle worms and of course chimpanzees. Stoppard is clearly in possession of an enormous intellect and, even at the age of 77, his appetite for questioning, understanding and wordplay shows no signs of abating.
Where the play falters is, ironically, at the emotional level: our intellects are being satisfied by the all the intense chatter, but somehow we fail to feel much. This never seemed to matter for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard’s absurdist first hit, and The Hard Problem has echoes of that early work – most obviously in the discussions of chance and coincidence. Here, though, there is more of an attempt at conventional character development, which nevertheless gets side-lined by all the science. There are relationships that feel off-key and characters that lack depth, as though they are mere vehicles for the dialogue.
Nevertheless, the play is stimulating from beginning to end, and Vinall is superb.
Photo: Alastair Muir
The Hard Problem is on at Dorfman Theatre until 27th May 2015, for further information or to book visit here.
The Hard Problem will be broadcast live in UK cinemas and many more worldwide as part of National Theatre Live on 16th April 2015, for further information visit here.