The Hard Problem: Challenging, Amusing and Intelligent but not Stoppard at his best.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Categories: Professional Theatre


Photo by John Persson .  Olivia Vinall as Hilary.

As patrons shuffled out of the Cineplex theatre in Ottawa Thursday evening, after th NTL showing of The Hard Problem, the new play by Tom Stoppard, his first play since 2006 (Rock’n Roll) and the first for the National Theatre since his Trilogy The Coast of Utopia in 2002, the general impression seemed to be exactly what was mentioned in the title of Michael Billington’s review , published in “the Guardian” January 29: “the work occasionally suffers from information overload”, something which would not be difficult to document, especially if one had the text on hand . Clearly without the text, most of the details of the arguments are difficult to retain.

As well, the vocabulary is always taken from areas of specialisation as they are bantered back and forth by these scientists who are all specialists in their own fields: cognitive science which is questioned as a science, evolutionary or behavioural biology; genetics, analysis of the brain are linked to science as opposed to the study of the mind. The study of the mind is not a science whereas the study of the brain is linked to human biology and is a science. If this is so, how does one experiment on human consciousness? How does one analyse the “mind”.which has no material substance? Later the question arises related to the fact that materialsm is a philosophy, does that mean it can be put in the same category as the belief in God? Is that scientific?  And the ideas roll round in the laboratory and board rooms of the KROHL institute of Brain Science where all these nine characters find themselves, employees or students in this research institute, where they are trying to define human consciousness.

Bob Crowley’s set design is minimalist but between scenes, he brings up a graphic design of metallic threads, a great mixture of metal connections and flashing lights along with the mathematical structure of Bach’s music that all suggest the wiring of the human brain as both an instrument of science and a source of artistic creation. That is the labyrinth the scientists must navigate to find their answers. The image is very telling.

What one does recognize fairly r apidly is the very real conflict between reason (Scientific or otherwise) and intuition, feeling or irrational belief such as religion. Director Nicholas Hynter’s fine ear and nuanced work with his excellent cast. has us rolling along with the arguments, even if they are not completely clear, but we always have the feeling we “get it” because he brings out the delicate antithesis between what the scientific minds are defending against the deeper non- rational elements that well up and often become the more compelling moments of these performances. What Stoppard has done then is create characters who are walking illustrations of the human consciousness that is inevitably in contradiction with itself and that is the fun part of this evening. Examples of that abound in the play.

Take the scene between Hilary (the beautiful Olivia Vinall) and Spencer (Spike) played by the attractive and muscular Damien Molony who spends lots of time shirtless, and provoking such unscientific thoughts in the mind of the female beholder. The choice of actors is no accident. They are both at a conference in Vienna together sharing a room and sitting together on the bed in their hotel discussing Hilary’s problematic paper just before he has to rush out to a reception for a Nobel Prize winner. At that moment, Spike gets into vehemently hard core scientific criticism of her paper , accusing her of using unscientific arguments, dealing with the question as though it were religion. However, as she tries to out-argue him by telling him about her relationship with God, we see Spencer’s eyes narrow, we see a strange glow come over his face, he moves towards her, thoughts of the Nobel prize reception disappear into the background . Next thing they are kissing and lights dim. And what happens to his scientific critique of her paper and his visceral dislike of the idea of God….well it melts away, at least for the moment. A similar confrontation happens between Hilary and her student Bo who falsifies her research results because she believes her new findings will please Hilary. Emotional reasons, behind her dishonesty , soon become clear as well. And then there is Leo (Johnathan Coy) , the director of the research lab , slave driver for scientific rigour at all levels, but we too see the very irrational way he looks at Hilary . Thus how does one divide the functioning of the human consciousness into different clear-cut categories.. Stoppard shows us he might not even believe it is possible, and in fact when rational and non-rational thinking meet, human intuition takes over. Stoppard doesn’t find fault with anyone, it all seems fairly normal that the heart takes over, as Pascal lead us to believe.

The Hard Problem is a complex way to come to a conclusion that really should not surprise anyone, given the circumstances. It is well constructed , even though some of the characters appear rather stereotypical. In general though, this does not appear to be one of Stoppards most compelling or intriguing plays but one gets the impression it was something he had to get off his chest  and as such, it becomes a serious and intelligent challenge to the mind of the beholder , with amusing moments . Such a pleasing theatrical cocktail is not a bad thing, especially from a writer of the calibre of Tom Stoppard. 

THE Hard Problem runs for 1h40 minutes. It returns to Cineplex theatres in Ottawa on May 16.

By Tom Stoppard

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Designer Bob  Crowley

Lighting   Mark Henderson

Sound  Paul Arditti

Music J.S. Bach


Spike       Damien Molony

Hilary       Olivia Vinall

Amal        Parth Thakerar

Leo          Jonathan Coy

Julia        Rosie Hilal

Ursula      Lucy Robinson

Jerry        Anthony Calf

Cathy       Daisy Jacob

Bo            Vera Chok

Pianist     Benjamin Powell.

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