It's nine years since Tom Stoppard’s last stage play and 13 since his last at the National Theatre. As audiences enter the recently rechristened Dorfman Theatre, they are confronted by a steel sculpture—silver vertical poles and loopy curves—that hangs over the stage like a giant chandelier. In the first scene, this abstract representation of three pounds of grey matter will be compared to a map of the underground “with 86 billion stations connected 30 trillion ways, hard-wired for me first”. It’s been a long wait, but we are back in Stoppard’s universe.
Since it takes consciousness as its subject, “The Hard Problem” can literally claim to be the most cerebral of Stoppard’s 40-or-so plays. Can the mind stand apart from the body? Can scientific materialists ever explain how a metaphor works? And where, in all this, does “good” fit in? No other playwright sets the bar so high when it comes to eschewing small talk. By the second scene, two of the characters are lying semi-naked under a single duvet in a bedsit discussing God, Darwin, DNA, virtue and cost-benefit competition. If this feels more than usually divorced from the exchanges we might expect in a post-coital situation, it’s also strangely familiar: people talk to each other this way in a Stoppard play.
“The Hard Problem” follows the rise and fall of Hilary (Olivia Vinall), a psychology researcher, quick-witted and dyed-blonde, who lands a plum job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. The institute is funded by Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf), a sleekly bullish hedge-fund billionaire, and this combination neatly brings together the world of high finance—where computational maths is put to the service of rampaging egotism—with the disinterested scientific research of Hilary and her colleagues. There are dark ambiguities in this overlap between philanthropy, education and research; not least that if the institute could show irrefutably that altruism doesn't exist that would validate the founder’s day job. An altruistic trader or broker isn’t even an outlier, explains an employee of Krohl Capital Management: “forget black swans, we’re talking African polar bears”.
For “The Hard Problem”, one backstory could be said to go back over 100,000 years to the hunter-gathers on the savannah when these characters’ ancestors were hard-wired for “me first”. Another backstory goes back 11 years to a teenage pregnancy that led to the not-so-Darwinian idea of adoption. Stoppard’s carefully crafted plot builds around this cluster of conflicting notions, allowing only a handful of laughs (the best of which is a throwaway line about pilates). In this contrapuntal atmosphere it looks as if it will be easy to divvy up the two sides, but events soon complicate that assumption, with altruistic actions leading to harm, and a lovely final stage direction altering our view of the most egotistical character. But it always feels as if the themes are driving the plot. As the theatricalised discussion took in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the life cycle of the brain worm and merits of Cartesian dualism, one experienced an odd combination of interest and disengagement.
As ever, Nicholas Hytner’s staging and Bob Crowley’s designs bring a tidy, freshly laundered elegance to the production—with J.S. Bach providing the scene-change music and the brain sculpture turning multi-coloured and even representing fireworks (though, given the choice, one would have preferred the fireworks in the dialogue). The best moments came when the cast could loosen up: when Jonathan Coy, for instance, Hilary’s silver-haired, weathered boss, stood right up close to Hilary, angrily pointing his forefingers at her brain and challenging her to explain how the mind could comprehend a line like “lonely as a cloud”. Most engaging of all was Parth Thakerar, the insouciant young mathematician, who first appears in a brown suit and red shirt, then graduates to the city and to wearing £7,000 watches. He had a Stoppardian zest and fizz. “The Hard Problem” takes on a huge topic, but if it’s not one of his bigger plays, it’s because the grey matter has weighed in at over three pounds.