Solving a hard problem

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem’ at London’s National Theatre

4 minute read

“Don’t you believe in good, Spike?”

Who bothers to ask questions like that in the theater today? Who dares to? Who cares to? Tom Stoppard, of course, the George Bernard Shaw of our times.

Sir Tom is one of those rare playwrights who belong to the tradition of “theater of ideas.” They are few and far between — Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Pirandello are others — and their works are richly philosophical and deeply humanistic.

All the more reason, then, to welcome a new play by Sir Tom, especially after a hiatus of almost a decade (his last play, Rock ’n’ Roll, premiered in 2006). It’s his first play at the Royal National Theatre since 2002, when his trilogy Coast of Utopia was performed. A nine-hour epic on Russian intellectual history that went on to Lincoln Center, it attracted stars like Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup (and a stellar cast of dozens) to forego film commitments and spend a season performing before packed houses.

So anticipation ran high for the world premiere of The Hard Problem in the newly renovated Dorfman Theatre at the National. The revelation? Instead of a nine-hour treasure trove, this time Stoppard is offering a 90-minute jewel — one that, in the tradition of theater of ideas, will challenge you to think as well as feel.

The mystery of consciousness

The Hard Problem follows Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brain research institute, over a period of nine years, as she grapples with challenging questions that are scientific, philosophical, and personal. We first see her challenging her pragmatic mentor, Spike (who is also her lover) on topics related to the so-called “hard problem” (named by David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher, regarding the mystery of consciousness.) She's trying to connect the dots between consciousness, human motivation, and “doing good” — and she won’t give up. Over a dozen scenes, as Hilary’s career flourishes, an ensemble of nine other characters join in an ongoing debate on related issues, including Cartesian dualism, moral relativism vs. moral absolutism, altruism vs. egoism, miracle vs. coincidence, and the essential difference between the terms “brain” and “mind.”

Sounds heady? Of course it is. After all, it’s a Tom Stoppard play. Stoppardian characters are born to ask questions, like: “Can a computer do what a brain can do?,” “Is there such a thing as coincidence?,” or “Is God the ‘last man standing’?” (the latter being the topic of one of Hilary’s academic papers). It’s what his characters love to do. As Valentine, a young scholar in Stoppard’s masterpiece Arcadia, explains: “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

What makes The Hard Problem moving as well as engaging is the conflation of the intellectual and the personal. Hilary has another “hard problem” — a deeply personal secret in her past that haunts her, sending her down on her knees every night to pray. “Why are you praying?” her lover/mentor Spike asks, bewildered. “I’m praying for a miracle,” she replies. Like Arcadia, The Hard Problem functions like a mystery as well, as clues to Hilary’s secret (a child she had at 15 and gave up for adoption) are planted in scene after scene until the play’s unexpected conclusion.

Resolve and vulnerability

Stoppard portrays strong, appealing women, such as the brilliant Thomasina and the determined Hannah in Arcadia, the passionate Natalie Herzen in Coast of Utopia. Here, the character of Hilary joins their ranks, played with a touching mixture of resolve and vulnerability by Olivia Vinall. She leads an able cast, including Damien Molony as her pragmatic paramour and Anthony Calf as the tough-minded financier of her research institute.

Sir Nicholas Hytner, the National’s outgoing artistic director, has staged The Hard Problem with clarity and simplicity. The dozen scenes are bridged by sparkling strains of Bach’s piano music. Above Bob Crowley’s spare, stylish set hangs an abstract tangle of wires, representing the neurons and synapses of the brain, through which colored lights course as the music plays. The result is a pristine harmony of form and content, of scenic and sound elements, in this elegant investigation of the workings of the mind and heart.

The playbill of the National Theatre includes an exchange of letters written between Stoppard and Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, on the topic of altruism and “doing good” — a correspondence that contributed to the birth of this play. Reading these letters, one is struck by the passionate and abiding commitment to the life of the mind that this Renaissance playwright has.

I imagine that the questions raised by this scintillating play will remain in our own minds long after the lights go down. After all, as Hannah says in Arcadia: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter, otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.”

For Naomi Orwin's review of the Philadelphia premiere at the Wilma, click here.

What, When, Where

The Hard Problem, by Tom Stoppard, Nicholas Hytner directed. Through May 27 at the National Theatre, The Embankment, London, To be broadcast on HD Live at the National at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on April 16, May 3, and May 6, 2015.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation