A dissertation on the definition of consciousness may seem more suited for a university lecture theatre than a stage at the National, but, when its writer is Tom Stoppard, there can be no other place for it. Sir Tom’s new play, discussing the unfathomable enigmas of human existence, is partly a collection of profound thoughts and partly a critique of profound thinkers. Hilary (Olivia Vinall) is a doctor of Psychology who takes in all the science, but holds space for belief in the metaphysical, much of which science cannot explain; she prays nightly, without knowing why or to whom and she is haunted by maternal feelings for the daughter that she has given up for adoption. Spike (Damien Moloney), her former tutor and occasional lover believes that the brain is no more than a machine made up of living cells and he eschews talk of emotions. These two make the most unromantic stage couple in recent memory, but, as both have the looks of models for glossy fashion magazines, it is not difficult to guess what, other than healthy argument, brings them together. Therein lies this play’s hardest problem – it is so absorbed in being dispassionate that it neglects to develop a human drama that would have drawn in the audience. This problem has beset some of Stoppard’s earlier plays, but not all; The Real Thing is real, The Hard Problem is just hard. Stoppard tries valiantly to weave the drama and the underlying themes together, but the relationships between the characters remain sketchy and the plot devices used are often clumsy – interesting story lines are introduced to illustrate key pointa and then abandoned almost immediately; “is it in human nature to be altruistic or egoistic?” the play asks and it then shows Jerry (Anthony Calf), the apparent philanthropist sponsoring the Institute of Brain Science for which Hilary works, to have egoistic motives; a discussion on wildly improbable coincidences incorporates the first hint of a wildly improbable coincidence that will come later in the play. This all jars for being creakily obvious, but the deeper problem may be that there are just too many diverse themes to be incorporated into one drama. As a result, a profusion of characters, stories and ideas that do not gel properly and are not fully developed makes the play an unsatisfying experience. All that said, there are many worse ways of spending 100 minutes than listening to Stoppard’s eloquent dialogue, peppered with typically witty flourishes, and Nicholas Hytner’s slick and polished production with a fine cast is never less than entertaining. If writing this play has helped Sir Tom to figure out the meaning of life, he is keeping it from the rest of us, but at least he has hit one bullseye by showing us yet again that nobody really knows anything.
Performance date: 30 January 2015