What is clear is that Tom Stoppard’s latest play, after a break of eight years, is very wordy. What isn’t quite so clear, for me at any rate, is what all these words mean. The characters don’t so much talk to one another as expound theories and, apart from the main character, Hilary (an excellent Olivia Vinall) are, for the most part, one dimensional and unlikeable.
The play is called The Hard Problem because of the difficulty scientists and philosophers have in working out the nature of human consciousness. My difficulty is understanding why the God versus Scientist question has to be so damned shallow. The long speeches and clever debating, with no small talk and proper interaction made by head hurt with all the information overload.
The play opens with young psychology student, Hilary, having a flirtatious debate about Darwinism and the logical impossibility of altruism with her older tutor, Spike (Damien Molony). He is helping her prepare for an interview at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science when he’s not climbing into her bed. Much to his disgust, Hilary likes to kneel and pray before bedtime. No, it’s not to ask God to make sure she’s successful in the interview but something much more maternal. For as a teenager Hilary gave her baby daughter up for adoption and is desperate that the child is well and happy. Praying helps to alleviate the worry and sadness.
Much to her surprise, Hilary lands a job at Krohl and thus comes across the egomaniacal hedge-fund billionaire owner (Anthony Calf) and his daughter, Cathy. Not to give the game away but what happens later is termed a coincidence but is, to my mind, a contrivance. But, no matter, at least it does bring some warmth to the proceedings.
As ever Bob Crowley has come up with a stylish and sleek, if minimal, design, aided and abetted by Mark Henderson’s clever lighting. By the use of lit overhead wires and rods that burst into pretty multi-coloured movement between scenes, we get the impression of a brain whirring. And Sound Designer, Paul Arditti has added evocative piano music to each scene change. They, along with Nick Hytner’s impeccable direction ensure that the production isn’t all negative. It’s just a shame that the excitement surrounding a new play by Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir Nicholas Hytner’s swansong as The National’s Artistic Director isn’t as exciting as it promised to be.
Mind you, my mind has since whirred like those multi-coloured wires as I try to understand dualism and monism, so that’s a positive outcome from a trip to the theatre.