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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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue