The Hard Problem, Sir Tom Stoppard’s first stage play since 2006, begins with what you have to call Stoppardian promise: a bit of dialogue that misleads the audience about its actual subject. We hear a 30-something man tell a 22-year-old woman”: “You’re looking at two years. The jewellery was under the floorboards. The police have nothing to connect you to the scene of the robbery.”
But this isn’t about a crime. It’s a thought experiment, a discussion between academics about the game theory problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma (though, as it necessarily involves two players, it should surely be “the prisoners’ dilemma”).
So we’re off to a great start, in this 100-minute, no-interval performance in the National Theatre’s nicely remodelled auditorium now renamed the Dorfman Theatre. Outgoing NT director Nicholas Hytner directs a good cast starring Olivia Vinall (who has been excellent as Juliet, Cordelia and Desdemona) as the 22-year-old (when the play begins) student, Hilary, with a splendid set by Bob Crowley, featuring an expressive overhead light sculpture representing the tangled neurons and circuits of a brain. The only (curiously) wrong notes were a bit of Bach played on the piano by Benjamin Powell (according to the programme – but from where I sat in Row K I was unable to tell whether the music was live or recorded.)
“The Hard Problem” for neuroscience is, of course, consciousness, and the characters, most of them entitled to call themselves “scientists” of one sort or another, and employed at “the Krohl Institute for Brain Science” have a good deal of fun dismissing the attempts by non-scientifically trained philosophers to give an account of consciousness. Judging from the heroine, Hilary’s actions at the conclusion of the piece, however, I think Sir Tom’s sympathies lie with the lampooned philosophers (with whom I spent my own lapsed-academic past).
Hilary has a God-problem, ostensibly because “every theory proposed for the problem of consciousness has the same degree of demonstrability as divine intervention.” It enrages her lover and former tutor, Spike, that she concludes from this that the Divine Intervener is the kind of god that you pray to on your knees, and I have to agree with Spike. It makes for a dramatically implausible character – despite Hilary’s secret sorrow, the baby she had at 15 and gave up for adoption – she’s just too clever to be saying bedtime prayers because she’s a closet Cartesian.
Underlying much of the piece is the late Ronald Dworkin’s acknowledgment of transcendent religious feelings, his “religion without God,” which Stoppard ably sums up in his programme note: “We had defined our God in terms of our values, so our values must have pre-existed God, rather than deriving from God.” And behind this, thinks Stoppard, is the quarrel between materialism and “ ‘substance dualism’ (two substances: body and mind).”
As Hilary says, before the best line in the play (about whether a chess-playing computer can ever be said to be “thinking”), this is deep stuff. Her idea of “deep,” she says, is “a computer that minds losing.” I have avoided trying to describe the “plot” of The Hard Problem, the love interests and even the characters, because the play is really a set of interlocking though not always consequential philosophical arguments. (Never mind that most of the characters are meant to represent philosophy-hostile scientists: in this respect they’re simply silly; though it may clarify them, no amount of experience is going to settle any of these arguments.)
From Travesties, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and Arcadia to The Coast of Utopia, I have admired Stoppard’s work at least as much, and often more, than that of any living playwright, and looked forward to The Hard Problem with eagerness, despite having already read some poor reviews, saying that it lacked drama.
I’m afraid this is all too true, so much so that I wondered why it wasn’t sent back for a re-write before being produced. But I can answer my own question: this is a piece that reads better than it plays. I can well understand the enthusiasm of those responsible for its presentation. The script is gripping, the characters leap from the page, and – this is important – the time sequence is clear, which it is not in the actual staging, where it is not apparent that years have passed between some of the piece’s eleven scenes and the characters have aged accordingly. The Hard Problem reminds me of reading the arguments in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, pages and pages of them, as listened to and witnessed by Hans Castorp, between the humanist Settembrini and the radical Naphta. Like these, Hilary’s arguments with the other characters (of which most of the dialogue consists) all work on the page – but not on the stage. Stoppard’s writing here is full of intellectual passion, even zeal. He loves the subject and has strong feelings about the positions advocated and represented. What he’s written, though, is a very good novella, and not a play at all.