The Hard Problem

Hard_Problem_posterThe Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard
at Dorfman Theatre,
National Theatre

21st February 2015

A guest review by Derek Linney

My response to this new play by Tom Stoppard can probably best be summarised by my thoughts on exiting the theatre: “How do you stop audiences leaving a play at the interval?  Answer: Stage it as a single act”.

The “Hard Problem” of the title is that of understanding / explaining human consciousness. Does one subscribe to Cartesian Dualism – in which the brain and the mind are essentially different: the brain being material and the mind, and hence consciousness, being insubstantive in the material sense. Or does one subscribe to Materialism: the mind and brain are one and the same material entity and consciousness is some, as yet unexplained, consequence of the complexity of the brain’s functioning. Both positions have difficulties. How does the dualist explain how thoughts – from the immaterial mind – can be translated into actions, for example the movement of ones arm, in the physical world? Also, how can one explain the emergence of consciousness during the course of evolution: presumably the original simple organisms lacked consciousness but at some stage it must have evolved; though how a non-material mind could emerge is problematical without recourse to an external agent such as God. The materialist, on the other hand, has to explain how consciousness intuitively seems to be a quality that cannot be possessed by a mere automaton – be that a computer or a physical brain.

The promise of The Hard Problem was a play that explored these questions. Instead we were served a hotchpot of declamations – to call them arguments would be stretching the reality of the script – regarding consciousness, morality and altruism, biased scientific research, god and miracles with a dollop of hedge funds and market modelling thrown in. While any of these could have formed the basis for an intelligent, challenging play what we got never went into any depth on any of these questions. By analogy, for Radio 4 fans, it was more like listening to Question Time – with party political representatives proclaiming manifesto points – rather than The Moral Maze – an in depth interactive debate of an issue.

None of this might have mattered had the play had any emotional or dramatic value to compensate for the lack of intellectual stimulation. But it was populated by stereotypes rather than rounded out characters and it lacked pace. What emotional content there was rested upon relatively unexplored relationships or upon a scarcely believable coincidence. It also gave the feeling of being self-consciously clever with, for example, a throw away reference to Godel and a cameo reference to the Milgram experiment – although even this was misrepresented since the original experiment related to people’s tendency of obedience towards authority figures rather than testing their empathy / altruism as suggested here.

I wondered during the play whether Stoppard simply didn’t understand the subject matter in sufficient depth or whether he had deliberately dumbed it down to reach a wider audience but in doing so had robbed it of any rigour, insight or intellectual value. Reading the programme notes afterward, an experience for more rewarding than watching the play, suggests that Stoppard had substantially researched the subject area, including for example an exchange of letters with Richard Dawkins, and so it must have been through conscious oversimplification that the content suffered so badly.

The cast largely did their best with what was a weak script and the blame must lie with Stoppard as the playwright. Nicholas Hytner’s direction was reasonable, given the content, although the slow scene changes removed any dramatic tension that might have emerged during the play. Overall a huge disappointment particularly as this is Hytner’s last play at the National Theatre. The one positive note was that it was nice to visit the revamped Cottesloe, now Dorfman, Theatre.