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Review: Tom Stoppard's 'The Hard Problem', National Theatre

29/01/2015 11:24 GMT | Updated 30/03/2015 10:59 BST

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The Hard Problem is Tom Stoppard's first new play since 2006's Rock & Roll and therefore this is a much anticipated production at the National Theatre. The Hard Problem in hand is simply, what is consciousness? But the play itself is actually hard going.

The story centres around Hilary (Olivia Vinall), a PhD student at Loughborough, and we first meet her engaged in some pretty heavy flirting with her lascivious tutor (Damien Molony) who's only really offering some extra help on her thesis because he wants to get into her pants (his words, not mine).

And how do they flirt? Through a rather heated debate about whether human motivations can ever be truly altruistic. It's a shame that Olivia has been lumbered with the rather naïve part of the debate, that altruism is possible, as I'm not sure that I believe a PhD student would be so childlike in her position.

Those familiar with pop culture, you'll know that this debate has actually been done (better) elsewhere. Now I'm guessing Tom Stoppard didn't watch a lot of Friends but all I kept thinking about was that episode where Phoebe was absolutely convinced that altruism was possible and spent the whole episode trying to do purely altruistic acts before she eventually let a bee sting her because that's what it wanted to do.

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But anyway, this pretty much lays out the ground for the rest of the play for the second scene moves on to consider, can computers think? Now, again, this isn't really new ground as Alan Turing's famous paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence actually starts with the question, "can machines think?"

It is a bit bizarre, therefore, that this entire scene takes place without the name 'Turing' being mentioned even once. And it seems even odder that parts of his paper, on the importance that to get a machine to think we must not recreate an adult mind but a child's one and then educate it, are not even included in the debate.

However, the premise of this scene is Hilary's interview with the exalted Krohl Institute where she's pitched against Amal (a welcome spirited and energetic performance from Parth Thakerar) and this question is pitched to both candidates to resolve.

I mention this as this is the only scene where you sense that dialogue this heavy, this detailed, makes sense. Of course candidates would hold forth considering these big questions and debate these big answers. Elsewhere, in the other scenes such dialogue seems out of place and forced.

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For example, it seems implausible that two scientists, both before sex and after sex, would turn immediately to intense arguments about mathematical equations, chaos theory and the existence of God. There's even a bit of Gaia theory thrown in - does the world itself have consciousness? But it's a bit much. Surely even scientists want to talk about something else sometimes?

But from this successful interview, we follow Hilary's budding career at the Institute as she takes on a junior, Bo (Vera Chok), and together they conduct a series of behavioural analysis experiments on children of various ages. Sadly these experiments are not actually part of the play. Instead these are performed elsewhere and instead we're told the results rather than shown.

Unfortunately for Hilary, her management of both Bo and the tests are not thorough and this comes back to bite her.

None of this reveals character though and the plot is pretty bare. Instead it's used as a tool to analyse human motivations, and hence we swing back to the initial debate - are we altruistic by nature, or selfish? And in the nature vs. nurture debate, is altruism the natural part of that equation or is our natural state one of selfish desire?

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Tom Stoppard's reputation as an intelligent playwright who likes to tackle these big science-philosophy conundrums is well known but, for me, the balance between heart and head in this play is out of kilter. The play doesn't engage you emotionally and so it's hard to be swept up in any of the debates you hear. Little is dramatized and you feel the whole production is just a very loose vehicle for these dry debates.

Direction comes from Nicholas Hytner and it's very subtle. Similarly, design from Bob Crowley is very delicate, unimposing, with a simple but emotive mass of hard wires intermingled with flashing, glowing lights, representing synapses, hanging above the stage.

With dialogue this dense it is hard to do much else as anything overly excessive would be too much, too distracting and we wouldn't know whether to focus on the action or the words. In fact, the characters in this play do very little, there is no great action - this is a play of a series of discussions about big questions - why do we do what we do, and say what we say.

All of the above means that we never really get more than skin deep into any of the characters. What you get is a sense of the playwright, Tom Stoppard, raging against the dying of the light, trying to find purpose in mortality. As a result, this play is a bit frenetic, a bit all over the place, wanting to be a play about everything and, as a result, we end up with a play that neither entertains nor sheds any new light on the great question you sense he is trying to tackle - is there a God or is this all just chance?

National Theatre, London to April 16, 2015

Image Credits:

1. Olivia Vinall - Hilary in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. Image by Johan Persson

2. Olivia Vinall - Hilary, Anthony Calf - Jerry, in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. Image by Johan Persson

3. Parth Thakerar -Amal, Anthony Calf - Jerry

4. Olivia Vinall - Hilary, Vera Chok- Bo in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. image by Johan Persson