The Hard Problem

Now, my theatre life is still in its infancy, so I felt quite thrilled when I heard that Tom Stoppard’s new play (The Hard Problem) touched on one of my academic interests: evolutionary biology. (I have a degree in Human Genetics, don’t you know!) A Stoppard play, with science and Damien Molony – I was sold!

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The Dorfman Theatre is a wonderful contemporary space. The perfect setting for a play that explores our continuing, yet modern, interest in the idea of mind and consciousness. On entering, the stage was sparsely laid out, which immediately draws your eye to the intricate light sculpture hung above it. To me, it initially looked like a slightly squashed out DNA double helix (well, I am a geneticist after all!) – but in reality, I suppose it is a representation of the brain in close-up, given the electrical impulse-like manner in which the light shot around it in scene transitions.

I loved the transitions. Not only are you treated to an array of different light displays (cleverly making you look up and away from where the set was being rearranged), but also a burst of beautiful piano playing accompanies it – presumably strains of Bach? (Firstly, I need to improve my classical music knowledge. Secondly, I can’t for the life of me remember where Bach was mentioned that brought me to this conclusion – only that he was, and I’ll get back to you…) This was the perfect amount of time to digest what you had just seen and heard – and brought the evening to a fitting close, as the piece also came to an end.

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And the play itself? Stunning. All too often shows can be labelled as ‘intellectual’ and then they don’t actually make you exercise your grey matter at all. For me, it was a case of digging up what I could remember of the evo-bio material I studied at uni, and putting my science head on to get a hold of anything unfamiliar. So I guess for audience members with little or no scientific background it was probably a different sort of exercise for the brain. And anyway, the ‘human’ storyline threading through the piece does a great job of holding all of these components together.

It centres on Hilary (Olivia Vinall) and her transition from psychology student to high-flying researcher – all the while fighting against her own personal sorrow and continually praying for forgiveness. Vinall plays the role with a real verve, that hides her character’s vulnerability, except on the odd occasions when her mask slips. Her anguish at losing her daughter to adoption remains raw and closer to the surface than she would like.

There is a terrific supporting cast, however the standout has to be Damien Molony, in the role of Spike – Hilary’s former tutor, sometime lover and eventual colleague. I could very much identify with Spike in terms of many of his views (very science-oriented and straightforward), though not in his Richard Dawkins-esque way of expressing them! Basically, his is the only way of thinking; he is a bit of an intellectual snob. A lot of an intellectual snob, actually!

The play questions the nature of altruism: does it exist, or is it a disguised variant of egoism? And if it does exist in its pure form, what evolutionary benefit does it hold? Then there’s the question of the mind. Is it just an extension of the brain, or is there more to it than that? If so, where did it come from and why?

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Pretty heavy-going stuff. Stoppard may have bemoaned having to ‘dumb down’ aspects of his script, but even as someone familiar with many of the show’s concepts I feel this is probably a good thing, on the whole. The play offers enough of a glimpse into the science to make you want to go and find out more – a great tool for public engagement with science – without losing its dramatic effect. What we’re left with is a stimulating 100 minutes of theatre that suits a wide-ranging audience. And for someone like me, trying to feed both theatre and sciencey sides, it’s perfection!

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