'The Hard Problem': Theater Review

Johan Persson
Neuroscience drama is all brain but no heart

National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner stages a classy exit by directing Tom Stoppard's first new play in nine years, a lofty meditation on brain science and evolutionary biology

A small play about big themes, Tom Stoppard's first new stage work in nine years takes its title from the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, and refers to ongoing debates about how human consciousness works. The swansong production of the National Theatre's outgoing director Nicholas Hytner, The Hard Problem ponders whether mankind is independently capable of altruism and goodness, or whether we are simply walking clusters of molecules hard-wired for selfishness by evolutionary biology. Yes, that old dramatic chestnut again.

These are fertile times for plays which address the knotty complexities of cutting-edge physics, maths and biology, from Nick Payne's Constellations (freshly transferred to Broadway) to Lucy Prebble's The Effect. Full of lofty promise, The Hard Problem comes with program notes featuring contributions from Richard Dawkins and other scholars. Even so, it proves to be a flimsy autumnal footnote from the 77-year-old Stoppard, feeling more like a series of illustrated TED talks than a fully realized play by two of British drama's veteran heavyweight knights. Booking until May, it screens worldwide in April as part of National Theatre Live.

Hilary (Olivia Vinall) is an ambitious young psychology researcher applying for a job at a neuroscience institute run by billionaire hedge fund manager Jerry (Anthony Calf). But Hilary also holds heretical views on brain science, still clinging to unfashionable concepts like altruism, free will and dualism of mind and body. She even harbors a faith in some kind of God, or higher moral force at least, that disgusts her materialist colleagues. "We've scraped you clean of gibberish," protests Hilary's arrogant college tutor and sometime lover Spike (Damien Moloney). "We've accounted for every particle in the universe."

Despite Hilary's outmoded views, Jerry still hires her to work at his institute, seemingly to relish the intellectual challenge she poses to the prevailing materialist consensus. But as the years roll by, Hilary's faith in moral goodness is tested by some real-life challenges, including revelations about the "shame baby" she gave up for adoption as a 15-year-old schoolgirl, and the harsh backlash against a poorly researched scientific paper that she publishes with her colleague Bo (Vera Chok).

Stoppard once famously claimed "I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself." The Hard Problem is certainly structured like a series of erudite two-handed conversations, each side cordially disagreeing, never quite reaching a firm conclusion. The author plainly sympathizes more with Hilary's faith in "miracles", as she calls them, but he avoids taking a partisan stance.

Instead he lets the actions onstage gently undermine the arguments in the text, which is an elegant touch. While some characters (usually pompous males) argue that fanciful constructs like maternal love and empathy do not exist, others (usually kindly females) prove the selfish-gene rationalists wrong with their altruistic actions. The play opens with a discussion of The Prisoner's Dilemma, a classic thought experiment which suggests back-stabbing self-interest rules human behavior. But it ends with a real-world example of the dilemma, which seems to endorse the opposite view.

As an unorthodox seminar on the philosophy of neuroscience, The Hard Problem provides a stimulating 100 minutes in the theater. But as drama, it feels dry, schematic and overloaded with half-digested nuggets of arid textbook abstraction. Stoppard is in late-period Woody Allen mode here, moving young actors around a stage like lifeless chess pieces, trading hit-and-miss jokes and too-smart dialogue with no character shading between them.

While this cerebral style is perfectly suited to the high-minded discussion scenes, it falls short during the stilted depictions of love, sex and emotion. Potentially interesting subplots float into view, including one about the irrational forces at the heart of financial markets, only to fizzle out unexplored. A late revelation about one character's back story also seems clumsily contrived to shock, when in reality the secret is visible from miles away.

Credit is due to Hytner for his crisp staging, filling each rapid scene division with fragrant bursts of Bach piano music. Likewise to Bob Crowley and Mark Henderson for their eye-catching minimalist stage design, especially the hanging roof sculpture which mimics the electrical crackle of brain activity. Vinall, who previously acted for Hytner in Othello and Sam Mendes in King Lear, is an engaging presence as Hilary, with shades of Carey Mulligan in her outwardly cheery, inwardly anxious mannerisms.

But overall, The Hard Problem is a disappointment by Stoppard's standards, especially compared to his science-rich magnum opus Arcadia from 1993. Food for the brain, not for the heart, this extended dinner-party thought experiment never quite makes the evolutionary leap from page to stage.

Cast: Olivia Vinall, Damien Moloney, Anthony Calf, Vera Chok, Jonathan Coy, Parth Thakenar
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Musical supervisor: Matthew Scott
Pianist: Benjamin Powell
Presented by National Theatre