Sunday, 22 February 2015

Theatre Review: The Hard Problem

The only exam I've ever come close to failing was a multiple choice philosophy exam in my first year at university.

A lot of the content of that course, an introduction to ethics I think it was called, was about understanding what causes humans to act in certain ways, including the infamous Prisoner's Dilemma (Google it, I'm not explaining) which I utterly loathed having to discuss. I did not imagine I would ever voluntarily go and spend my Friday night watching a play that covered the same ground.

The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard's new play, does exactly that. (Uh oh..). If that wasn't enough to make me sceptical, the initial reviews for the play were not exactly glowing, with a good number of critics complaining that the play was boring and spent too much time musing on big psychological/philosophical debates to which it had no answer. (FFS.) Anyway, the ticket was already paid for so off I went.

Image from my Instagram. Don't knick it. 

The play centres on young psychology researcher Hilary, working at a top brain science institute and grappling with the titular Hard Problem - what is human consciousness? Is it just a function of the brain that can ultimately be explained by physiological hard facts, or is that only part of the answer? Is there a spiritual aspect too? Hilary believes, and Stoppard clearly agrees with her, that there is, which puts her at odds with everyone else at the institute (and in the play). Can she prove that she's right?

There's no getting away from the fact that this is a heavy and involved debate and it is fair to say that occasionally the debate does get in the way of the play. There were a couple of occasions during particularly lengthy arguments between Hilary and one of the other characters when, to be honest, I drifted off. The arguments are interesting, but constantly repeating them at length does become a bit tiresome. To paraphrase Hilary, if the Prisoner's Dilemma had been explained one more time I would've thrown up.

Those few moments apart though, I found The Hard Problem really engaging. Running at a brisk 100 minutes, fashionably sans interval and directed with signature flair by Nicholas Hytner, the play is for one thing very cleverly constructed. As boring as the lengthy, repeated explanations of the Prisoner's Dilemma and its psychological friends tended to be, the way they were practically used in the plot was much more interesting; subtly (for the most part) proving that Hilary's/Stoppard's belief that human consciousness isn't a purely scientific phenomenon is perfectly plausible. There are some fantastic passages of dialogue too, particularly those between Hilary and her utilitarian tutor/occasional boyfriend Spike about the fact that she prays every night, which are more thoughtful than most writing on religion at the moment. Not that that's a particularly high bar, mind. It's also a very funny play in a dry, wry sort of way which really helps cut through the heavy subject matter.

Cast-wise, the National has rather come up trumps, again. The ever excellent Olivia Vinall plays Hilary with a vulnerability that makes her incredibly appealing, and it's a testament to her performance that the trite and predictable ending (no spoilers) which is the play's biggest weakness is even passably plausible. She is ably supported by a fantastic ensemble, including my favourites Damien Molony as the pleasingly rakish - and often pleasingly undressed - Spike and Lucy Robinson as an enjoyably arch fellow scientist. Honourable mention too to Anthony Calf (aka that posh bloke from New Tricks) who has a lot of fun playing the billionaire owner of the brain-science institute in a series of expensive looking, tight jumpers which gave me some confusing feelings despite his decidedly patchy American accent. But that's by the by.

It's fair to say I enjoyed The Hard Problem much more than I was expecting to and judging by the 'that was really good, actually' reactions I heard repeatedly leaving the theatre it seems a lot of people felt the same way. I suppose the lesson here is to ignore reviews and just go and see stuff. But writing that in a review would be pretty stupid.

The Hard Problem is playing at the Dorfman Theatre at the NT until 27th May. It has extremely limited availability so if your interest is piqued book soon.


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