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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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser