The world of neuroscience and the study human behaviour is the topic of exploration in Tom Stoppard’s new play ‘The Hard Problem’, now showing at selected cinemas as part of the National Theatre Live season. NT Live camera work is deftly executed and this is worth noting as the play’s scenes are quite static. They are, for the most part, lengthy duologues consisting of material that may be quite complex for much of the audience. The way the camera cuts in and out of the diaIogues from long shot to close-up is fluid and serves the play well.
Stoppard’s play deals with ideas such as the pitfalls of qualitative research methods, mathematics and the role of money inside any institutional organisation. These issues are navigated well and Stoppard has done his research. These ideas form the background to the story of an upcoming researcher in psychology Hilary (Olivia Vinall). Hilary is obsessed with what Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, coined the hard problem which is the mystery of consciousness. Stoppard’s main objective is to tackle head-on the debate between science’s move to map the brain and explain its amazing function through tangible, mathematical formula versus the question of how do we account for the more intangible or the ethereal. How do we explain the phenomenon of the subjective first person? How can we measure our capacity to emanate sorrow for instance or know that the colour red can have all manner of effect on our emotions?
At the beginning of the play we see Hilary post-coital with her academic mentor/teacher Spike (Damien Molony) in her student quarters who both plot the next move in her career. The banter between them introduces the stark division between the two academics; he wants to apply mathematics to phenomena and she wants to apply the nonphysical and perhaps more celestial and even religious ideas to life’s phenomena. It is then revealed she gave a baby girl up for adoption when she was in her teens. This fact helps to explore the other main idea of the play; the dichotomy between altruism and egotism.
Stoppard weaves a few other plotlines into his piece along with Hilary’s pursuit of the perfect job in order to study her ideas. We are given Amal (Parth Thakerar) who gets into trouble with his financial dealings; then there is the lesbian couple, all alternative and grounded with their Pilates; plus there’s Hilary’s co-researcher Bo’s (Vera Chok) major miscalculation. Stoppard puts all this into the mix, which is very clever and entertaining, it all comes together in one very neat circle at the play’s conclusion. However, overall, we don’t really click with any of the characters – we just know what we stand for. Stoppard uses these characters to spout theories and ideas on brain science and job survival and then it all ends abruptly.
Expert director Nicholas Hytner tries to inject some feeling with these flat characters without much luck. All the actors display great technique and deliver their lines crisply and have a feel for layman’s academic speak which makes the dialogue easier to follow. The one bit of spark on stage is the strip-lights and wires representing the pulsating brain with all its millions of synapses. The cluster of neon blue and white light acts like a cloud that hovers over the proceedings of the play, presiding above these mere mortals trying to study it in all its complexities. This lighting effect reminds the characters and the audience of the awesome and unchartered realm of the grey matter between our ears. This design by Bob Crowley was shot by NT live cameras between each scene and this was a clever idea.
The play has hints of Stoppard’s well-known, wry humour and he has taken great pains to discuss some intriguing and ever popular ideas, but for a night out of theatre, more heart and along with the brain was needed.