The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard

National Theatre

Blog #1

The first surprise was walking into the National Theatre. It had all changed. Well, perhaps a bit of a makeover is more accurate, but for somewhere which has changed so little over the past couple of decades, still a surprise. But there seems to be more space and the addition of bottled local Meridian beer was a definite bonus. The play itself was in the refurbished Cottesloe, now called the Dorfman. And the play was new as well, though perhaps rather like the rest of the theatre, refurbished might be a better description.

The opening scene sets us clearly with Stoppard at his intellectual best – or worst, depending on your point of view. A young couple, moving inexorably towards bed, argue about the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Quite angrily too. Stoppard, always demanding of his audiences, is not interested in us understanding the dilemma, but from their positions we are to discern their opposite points of view. Spike is the modern academic materialist. All behaviour can be predicted if you have enough knowledge, Cartesian duality is dead. Hilary takes the view which I suspect, is shared by the non-specialist, that the spirit is real, that there is a difference between a computer and a consciousness, there is such a thing as virtue.

But the key scene follows when Spike is ready to bed his dualist student, he finds her praying. At first fazed he is then angry. How can he take seriously a woman who believes in God? He is utterly appalled, shocked and outraged. Her behaviour appears to Spike to negate any claims she has as an aspiring academic.

Despite this shocking revelation Hilary goes on to claim the high level research job and fight the corner for psychology over neuroscience until she finally subverts her own version of the prisoner’s dilemma, taking blame unnecessarily as an altruistic act.

Spike is, of course, correct. In the real world Hilary’s common-sense views would make her unemployable in modern academia. Materialism is the orthodox, and Stoppard correctly identifies the quasi-religious belief such widely accepted paradigms attract. Hilary is being academically sacrilegious.

You don’t go to Stoppard for the drama or the emotional hit; that said the play sped through for me, and there were emotional elements between the philosophical barnstorming, and of course, deliciously funny lines and clever twists. Strangely enough, I kept feeling that Stoppard had turned into Mamet – the short, snappy scenes and a central misogynistic academic character certainly reminds me of the controversial American. The acting was consistently strong across all the characters, with Olivia Vinall and Damien Molony both easy on the eye as well as the ear, though with surprisingly leisurely scene changes, I thoroughly enjoyed the play. Lightweight, I think despite the subject matter, and not really exploring a great deal of new ground, but worth the effort.

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