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It’s a specific hard problem that Tom Stoppard has in mind in his new play for the National Theatre: the “hard problem” of consciousness. The question that torments his lead character, young psychology researcher Hilary, is one that has exercised philosophers for centuries: what is the relationship between mind and brain, where does subjective consciousness reside and what exactly it is it? Is mind just matter or is it something separate?
Stoppard’s pursuit of this elusive quarry produces a play that takes him, us and director Nicholas Hytner (in his last production as artistic director here) boldly into the high mountains of human thought, a place that Stoppard has frequented with brilliance in much of his work. It’s great to have a play grappling with such profound ideas on this stage, great too to tackle these questions in theatre: an art-form in which actors can embody characters who, on paper, have no idea that they exist and that thrives on metaphor. Between scenes, we in the audience can muse on this and ask ourselves how it is that we can interpret designer Bob Crowley’s elegant tangle of lights above the stage as a brain, a computer circuit board and a thicket simultaneously. And how is it that some of us may like what we see and others not?
To those who argue that questions of consciousness matter not a jot to our daily business, Stoppard is out partly to show us that they do, because it has huge implications for our behaviour, specifically and crucially our moral behaviour. The trouble with the play, though, is that one hard problem seems to breed many and soon we are contemplating free will, altruism, coincidence, religion, computer science, predictability and a host of other snaky issues that sometimes elbow their way into the drama rather than emerge through it.
Granted, Hilary lands a job at a swish brain science institute, where people are more likely to break off mid-Pilates lesson to ask “Could the cosmos be teleological?” and the dazzling cut and thrust of ideas in stage dialogue is often thrilling, but even so, some conversations feel pretty stilted. Hilary and her on-off lover, Spike, an evolutionary biologist, bring a whole other twist to the mind-body debate by leaping straight from sex into a row about altruism.
It’s certainly a play with heart: Hilary is driven by a sorrow that lends personal urgency to her questioning. It is hard if you are tormented by soul-searching to be told there is no soul. And she is played, excellently, by Olivia Vinall with a poignant sense of loss and integrity. But the contextual drama around her too often feels unconvincing and, in a play about inner life, the characters could do with rather more of it. A fine assembly of actors, including Anthony Calf as the hard-nosed billionaire philanthropist behind the research centre, Jonathan Coy as an embattled psychologist and Damien Molony as Spike, animate their characters but need more to go on. A crucial plot twist, involving a young researcher, doesn’t ring true.
It’s this then that puts brakes on the play, coupled with the fact that it approaches the problem more through talk than action — unlike, say, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen or Nick Payne’s Constellations, which used the structure of the drama itself to embody and explore an idea. Flecked with Stoppard’s wry, ironic humour and luminous intelligence, directed with exemplary lucidity by Hytner, this is a play that, movingly, wrestles with deep questions about what makes us who we are and with the implications of materialism. But sadly it is more a play about a great subject than a great play about the subject.