The title is a joke. “The Hard Problem,” Tom Stoppard’s first new play in nine years, comes after a prolonged period of writer’s block: The difficult 35th album. It also refers to the mystery of consciousness, and, with his usual intellectual panache, Stoppard leaps from there to explore the limits of human knowledge — God, markets and other people — and the order we impose on the world. This time, though, the ideas lead the action and Nicholas Hytner’s polished production, his National Theater swansong, can’t wring feeling from philosophy alone.
Hilary Matthews (Olivia Vinall) is a psychology student, convinced that there’s more to life than mere materialism. She believes in both God and what Gilbert Ryle called “the ghost in the machine,” that science can’t fully account for thought.
Those ideas win her a research post at a major neuroscience facility founded by a hedge-funder Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf), as her prospective boss (Jonathan Coy) shares her convictions about consciousness.
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Stoppard’s approach is to set up the problem of mind over matter and leave it simmering while he stirs in a load of other ideas as seasoning.
First, he adds financial systems: Hilary’s rival Amal (Parth Thakerar) is a young hedge-funder (and ardent materialist) employed to model and predict global markets. Into the mix also go altruism, self-interest and evolutionary theory in the form of adopted children, lesbian couples and financiers that give up good money to do good work. Then come pinches of emotion, beauty and love — all things that seem to transcend chemistry, while also affecting our thoughts. Finally, crucially, a dollop of confirmation bias.
The last gives the play its politics. Amal’s error is ignoring “outlier” results that don’t fit his models — the crux of the financial crash — and Stoppard suggests the whole world works similarly. Krohl’s philanthropy privileges research that suits his purposes, while Hilary only gets (and keeps) her job because she and Leo concur. At every level, systems solidify and difference is eradicated: “We are all materialists now.”
We make models, act accordingly and, in doing so, reaffirm them. Consciousness is no less circular: we can only think about it by thinking.
There’s no denying the richness of these ideas, jostling up to one another in myriad ways, but that’s the measure of good thinking, not good theater.
In a play that invokes emotion throughout, emotion is still hard to come by. Stoppard’s characters aren’t people, so much as opposing viewpoints with jobs and characteristics attached. Vinall struggles to get any emotional mileage whatsoever out of Hilary, because she is a) intelligent, b) kind and c) that’s it. Every character’s every decision is governed by Stoppard’s thesis. No one has a life of their own. The entire thing is illustrative.
Even so, its fatal flaw is its lack of metaphor. Stoppard elucidates his ideas by having academics debate them (in undergraduate terms) for our benefit, but he never manages to translate those ideas into anything more. His best attempt involves Krohl’s adopted daughter, who shares a name and a birthday with the girl Hilary gave up. Coincidence? Miracle? Or are we simply creating order where none exists?
Hytner can’t do much with any of this, beyond staging it as simply and clearly as possible so we might keep up. Bob Crowley’s design reflects its themes without elucidating them. Above the stage hovers a cloud of strip-lights and wires: At once a brain with synapses firing and a map of global marketplaces. Changing colors alter the mood — more than can be said of a cast fighting against flat, featureless roles.