The Stoppard Problem

To ask the hard question is simple:
Asked at a meeting
With the simple glance of acquaintance
To what these go
And how these do;
To ask the hard question is simple,
The simple act of the confused will.

The Hard Problem (2015; writer Tom Stoppard, director Nicholas Hytner, Dorfman Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, via cinema relay)

For weeks I thought that “the hard problem” was a quotation. But I’m pretty sure I was confusing it in my head with “the hard question”. The hard problem is the problem of consciousness — what is it, where does it comes from, can it be created?

Stoppard has always been a writer of ideas — the talk of chance and probability in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, all kinds of philosophy in Jumpers, the coincidence of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara in Zurich in 1915 in Travesties, quantum mechanics in Hapgood and chaos theory in Arcadia. The recurrent accusation — beyond being too clever for his own good — is that alongside the philosophising and the theatrical gymnastics, Stoppard forgets to have a heart. Well, The Real Thing should have put paid to that.

The Hard Problem is the first Stoppard play I’ve seen since Arcadia; wrong places, wrong times. It’s his first play in years and I don’t think, alas, it’s vintage.

Loughborough University student Hilary (Olivia Vinall) is seeking advice from her lecturer Spike (Damien Molony) as she is applying for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. He questions her notions of altruism and good and is on the egotism/selfish gene side of human behaviour, especially when she reveals she prays. She gets the job — over a better mathematician, Amal (Parth Thakerar), who goes on to work for the hedge fund run by Krohl (Anthony Calf) which funds the institute — and climbs the greasy pole of research with or without ethics.

In this play, Stoppard is like those fan wank writers who make you feel intelligent. You know, like that episode of Sherlock that invents an underground station so we can be smug about knowing about “The Great Rat of Sumatra” (some people just aren’t ready). The film that preceded the screening had Rufus Sewell telling us how he felt more intelligent when performing in Arcadia. Stoppard begins the play by having Spike explain the prisoner’s dilemma — to be fair, Hilary is bored with how pedestrian that is — and before you know it (well, half a dozen scenes later), Hilary is faced with a situation where she can protest her innocence or claim guilt. Just like a prisoner’s dilemma. Spike tells us that there is no such thing as coincidence — but Hilary runs into an old friend from school, runs into Amal’s girlfriend, runs into Spike in Venice.

Small world.

Still, we never note all those times that someone doesn’t ring us just as we’re thinking of them.

That reunion allows the revelation about Hilary’s past that might lead to a coincidence or not. There was an audible gasp in the audience when that finally panned out. Audiences can be slow.

The problem for me — beyond an age-old wishing for funnier comedies — is that the play was not really about consciousness in any interesting way. There’s a few speeches where we speculate whether human beings are more complicated thermostats…

It’s Daniel Dennett territory:

There is no magic moment in the transition from a simple thermostat to a system that really has an internal representation of the world around it. The thermostat has a minimally demanding representation of the world, fancier thermostats have more demanding representations of the world, fancier robots for helping around the house would have still more demanding representations of the world. Finally you reach us.

And we get a version of the Chinese Box problems, so Searle’s in the mix, too. And that thing about bats is a reference to Nagel.

But this is sleight of hand.

In Hapgood, Stoppard paired idea with theatrical metaphor by asking if a quantum physicist was a spy or a double agent — you could never tell until you looked. I had no sense that the problem of consciousness was being performed here. No moment when Hilary is deluded that she’s conscious, or can’t trust her sense data or is a thermostat.

Instead, the issue is altruism vs egotism — is the good deed still a good deed if it’s for personal gain? Why did that person bring Hilary a cup of coffee? How many times will Spike offer Hilary a lift home in hopes of sex before he gives up? The market that funds the institute is notoriously unpredictable even though the equations of chaos have had a go, and I’m not clear when the play is meant to be set so we don’t have the spectre of 2008 to negotiate. Krohl is ruthless and the game is rigged in his favour — but he also seems a reasonable father. Is his institute altruism or egotism?

But Stoppard has here not worked hard enough to dramatise the speeches, with many scenes as two handers, and doesn’t seem to have the social comedy skills of Ayckbourn anymore to make some of the human interactions painfully, squirmingly funny. The game seems rigged in favour of Hilary — for the female characters in general — and against Spike. Vinall may be the better actor than Molony perhaps, as he is called upon to be eye candy and has a bit of a wandering accent.

And yet — and this is difficult to give full weight to without straying into spoiler territory — a small gesture toward Hilary at the end of the play (which tips the scales to altruism) is genuinely moving. There is a time for altruism and a time for egotism, or they are the same thing, plus time, but I’m not convinced we get any closer to solving the hard problem that way.

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