Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'The Hard Problem' by Tom Stoppard

22 April 2015

Last Thursday we were at the wonderful Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton to watch the NT Live broadcast of Tom Stoppard's new play, 'The Hard Problem', live from the National Theatre in London. I'm a big Stoppard fan and it was great to leap back into the familiar speech patterns of his characters debating their way through complex issues – in this case the mystery of consciousness. If it is going to become possible to model the human brain as a machine, will we be able to explain consciousness? In 'The Hard Problem' there is a running joke about the cliché of 'the prisoner's dilemma', but Stoppard avoids any reference at all to the other elephantine cliché in the room – that of 'the ghost in the machine'. The play asks whether anyone ever truly acts completely altruistically: if every apparently generous act actually conceals some vested interest or ulterior motive, however slight, then it could potentially be modelled and predicted. Tom Stoppard plays with these ideas through a (fairly slight) plot that demonstrates the complications of altrusim and coincidence through the lives of the characters. 'The Hard Problem' is a star vehicle for its female lead, the excellent Olivia Vinall, who we last saw as Desdemona in the National Theatre production of 'Othello' (reviewed here in September 2013). She appears in almost every scene and creates a very sympathetic protagonist. Some Stoppard plays would work as well on the radio as the stage, but Olivia Vinnal's reactions and facial expressions make 'The Hard Problem' more than just a play of words. This is a relatively short play, without an interval – a condensed version of Stoppard, without the elaborate framing devices of some of his earlier plays – but I really enjoyed it.

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