Mind over matter: Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem
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A night at the brain gym: Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem is his most diverse yet

It may be the shortest Stoppard full-length play, but The Hard Problem still offers 100 minutes of touching humour from a varied cast.

Examining attempts to explain human thought and behaviour, Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, has itself fallen victim to a common psychological phenomenon. Excessive anticipation – the nine-year wait since Rock ‘n’ Roll marks the longest theatrical gap in Stoppard’s career – almost guarantees disappointment, with the result that the early critical consensus filed this play as minor.

Having seen it once and read it twice, I strongly dispute this view. By the age of 77, Stoppard’s mentor Samuel Beckett and his friend Harold Pinter had both dwindled into fragments or silence. But even though The Hard Problem is the shortest of the 13 Stoppard full-length plays, it still runs to 11 meaty scenes across 100 minutes and displays intact the dramatist’s remarkable ability to synthesise complex knowledge into wittily metaphorical dialogue.

The factual background of many of his plays has been either physics, in Hapgood (1988) and Arcadia (1993); or metaphysics, in the literary-philosophical game-playing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967), Jumpers (1972) and The Real Thing (1982). Confirming the tendency of late work by great artists to reprise previous themes, the new play is a debate between the physical and the metaphysical.

The play’s protagonist is Hilary Matthews, played with radiant likeability by Olivia Vinall, whom we follow from 21-year-old evolutionary biology student at Loughborough University to 28-year-old research fellow at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Hilary suffers a personal sadness – at 15, she gave a daughter up for adoption – and what most colleagues consider a professional madness: she believes in God and the existence of a human consciousness (a “mind” or “soul”) separate from the brain.

Hilary’s college professor and on-off lover, the sleazy materialist Spike (Damien Molony) is a Darwinist and Dawkinsian who insists that “culture, empathy, faith, hope and charity . . . all come back to biology”; while his heretic pupil objects that neuroscience cannot explain “the mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan – accountability, duty, freewill, language”. Spike provokes her, to more pain than he knows, by asserting that even maternal love is an evolutionary survival tactic, re-titling Raphael’s Madonna and Child as “Woman Maximising Gene Survival”. At a brain conference in Venice, Hilary hits back by querying the use to human survival of the awe at Italian art and architecture that all the materialist delegates seem to be expressing.

Economics is the only one of the Nobel Prize sciences that hasn’t yet provided the basis for a Stoppard play but there are hints in The Hard Problem of the remnants of an attempt to dramatise the financial crash. Krohl, funder of the brain studies, has made his money from a hedge fund that employs neuroscientists and biologists to predict the behaviour of traders.

This link between the scientific and economic concerns of the play is typical of the elegant intertwining of plot and topic. Dramatising an argument between egotistical and altruistic interpretations of human nature, the major scenes – a tutorial, a job interview, an academic scandal – all turn on whether people are looking out for themselves or for someone else (or, crucially, think that they are).

The relationships in the play range from the predictably Darwinian (three characters make decisions because of sexual attraction) to the romantically irrational: the altruistic Hilary is disastrously drawn to egotistical men who treat her badly. Even a whopping narrative coincidence is set up in an early conversation on chance and the temptation  for the religious to see lucky outcomes as divine guidance.

The play guards against becoming a speaking diagram by making the characters the most diverse in the Stoppard canon: apart from the American Spike, they include a Chinese-American, an Asian, an Irishman and two lesbians. The director, Nicholas Hytner, keeps the conversations speedy but clear on a clean, spare set by Bob Crowley.

Whether or not Stoppard ever writes a play about economics, this one has already illustrated a central dilemma of the discipline: demand for this brainy, funny and touching play will long outstrip supply.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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