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5 February 2015

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.

By Mark Lawson

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.

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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.

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