The Hard Problem

Tom Stoppard’s latest play ‘The Hard Problem‘ is so starkly intellectual, particular in its early scenes, that it’s hardly breaking the rule that this blog is only about mathematics to give the preview performance on 23rd January a quick review. The Hard Problem in the title is: ‘What is consciousness?’. The characters grapple with it on and off (mostly off by the end), but it’s only one of several foci in the play. Others include coincidences (are they really as unexpected as they seem), Prisoner’s Dilemma, financial crashes, and egoism versus altruism. At worst it felt like a bag of trendy ideas, dumped onto the actors, designed more to appeal to the likely recent reading of a middle-brow audience than to make a gripping play. But that’s at worst: overall it comes together, even if it lacks the intellectual cohesion of some of Stoppard’s earlier work.

The central character, Hilary, is fascinating, but not always for the right reasons. She dominates the play and appears in almost every scene. We first see her discussing—or rather declaiming, since she often breaks off to lecture directly to the audience—the mind-body problem with her tutor, Spike. This is a bedroom scene. Spike, who got one of the biggest laughs in the play for his comment that having sex with a student would be ‘an event unheard of in the history of academia’, preps her for an upcoming interview, and supplies the maths she needs for a paper. Successful in the interview, we next see her five or so years later, working in psychology for a private lab, funded by the hugely wealthy financier Krohl (maybe a nod to the industrialist in Graham Greene’s England Made Me). The play then follows her academic career and personal life, both of which repeat the pattern established in the first scene, until the twin denouements: one surprising, the other highly predictable, and enthusiastically signposted right from the start.

On one reading, Hilary is a highly manipulative egoist who eagerly exploits everyone who crosses her path (most of whom end up in love with her) to avoid facing up to her intellectual weaknesses. Her biggest flaw, or more likely, virtue, is that she is unaware of the spell she casts. Hilary thinks she is a ‘good character’. And in her conscious actions, she acts like one: when she saves the career of her protégé Bo, she commits the only unarguably altruistic action in the entire play.

There are two clever moments when she is either overcome by emotion, or finds the strain of hiding a less pleasant reaction too much. In one she hides her face in a wastepaper basket, in the other she retreats to the shower, where Spike assumes (on the basis of not much evidence that I could see) that she is crying. This is follows by one of the few significant pauses in the play, intended, I suppose, to add weight to a shift in the relationship between Hilary and Spike. If so, I did not find the change to silent emotion from the charged intellectual debate convincing.

Overall, I found Olivia Vinall’s performance very one-note and shouty: it was only with a stretch that I could believe in Hilary’s hidden fragility, even though what we know about her character makes this seem otherwise plausible. Vinall’s Desdemona (on a different stage, also at the National) shows she has a great emotional range: she could have used more of it for Hilary. I think I would have found Hilary just as interesting a character if I’d just read the script.

The play is laugh out loud funny, particularly in the early scenes. As one would expect, there are many brilliant lines. When Krohl asks his adopted daughter ‘Are you going to ask any questions’, and she replies ‘Why?’, there was a nice echo of the questions game in Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. The play is bursting with other witty touches, particularly involving the geeky mathematician Amal. For me, he is (after Hilary) by far the most interesting character, and the only one to develop significantly during the play. Stoppard goes to great length to prove my theory that anyone who’s been to Cambridge will feel compelled to mention it within the first five minutes of meeting them. I had a dread early on that an important argument about altruism was going to be made by a scientific study invented for the purposes of the play: this was avoided very neatly.

At the end Hilary goes back to University to study philosophy, with the two main plot threads securely tied up. The hard problem is, of course, left unresolved, and surprisingly unexplored. But there’s still plenty left in the play to get one’s teeth into. I can imagine later more secure performances leaving one thinking about much more than the brilliancies in Stoppard’s script.

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