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A million Niagaras

06 February 2015

Michael Caines sees a new Stoppard play

johan persson

Goodness test: Hilary (Olivia Vinall) Bo (Vera Chok) in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, currently on at the National Theatre in London

Goodness test: Hilary (Olivia Vinall) Bo (Vera Chok) in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, currently on at the National Theatre in London

CONSCIOUSNESS is supposed to be the hard problem at the heart of The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard's first play since Rock 'n' Roll in 2006.

The protagonist is a young psychologist, Hilary, who lands herself a job at an institute for the study of brain science by outmanoeuvring a rival, the brilliant Amal, who thinks that computers are more amazing than brains, and that consciousness is just a state of advanced mental complexity. Computers cannot emulate that complexity yet, he admits; the rush of the human mind is like a "million Niagaras", whereas even the fastest computers are more like running a tap.

Hilary has more intriguing notions; in fact, to the horror of her sometime partner, the cynical Spike, she even prays. But then she has something specific to pray for.

For this smart set, versed in psychology, neuroscience, and mathematics, but taught to scoff at philosophy, the debate turns on experimentation, rational debate (which is in large measure what The Hard Problem is), and, not incidentally, career advancement through significant achievements in their chosen field. Hilary joins the Krohl Institute, but Jerry Krohl, who funds it, sees Amal's potential, and takes him on as an analyst in his hedge-fund company.

A different kind of rivalry emerges: not between Amal and Hilary, who have little else to say to one another, but between theories about human behaviour. Are people innately good, as Hilary and her assistant Bo try to test? Or are they predictably selfish, as Jerry seems himself to prove and thrive on? Is altruism merely egoism in disguise?

A stage conversation about consciousness cannot help but turn into a conversation about ethics - and about God - while illustrating how such apparently disinterested inquiries can be turned to, say, the profit of a ruthless hedge-fund manager who needs to know what the stock market is going to do next. And so one hard problem begets another.

There is something stately about Stoppard's rehearsal of the arguments, a quality matched by Nicholas Hytner's clear and yet not especially dynamic staging of the piece. (This is also Hytner's last production as artistic director of the National Theatre, before he hands over to Rufus Norris.) The opening bars of "Zadok the Priest", played on a piano, open the piece, and the musical accompaniment to later scene changes remains serene Baroque.

Above the stage, the designer, Bob Crowley, has suspended a cerebral cloud of neon wires and twinkling tubes, and, although the settings do change - a bedroom in Loughborough, the Krohl Institute, a bedroom in Venice, then back to the Krohl - the pace and length of each scene seems to remain fairly consistent, and the unpacking of personal information a touch mechanical. Bo's Chinese roots and Amal's Indian ambition seem entirely the stuff of cliché.

Yet The Hard Problem makes for an absorbing and intellectually stimulating 100 minutes in the theatre, helped especially by Olivia Vinall's lithely modulated performance as Hilary, and strong support from the rest of the cast, not least Anthony Calf as Jerry, Damien Molony as Spike, and Vera Chok as Bo.

They enliven a debate that seems to suggest simplistically that the heart controls the head - and that, to almost everyone's surprise, miracles can happen - while leaving the audience to decide for themselves about who has formed the light, and who the darkness.

At the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, until 27 May (live broadcast, 16 April). Box office: phone 020 7452 3000. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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