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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Dorfman)


  Damien Molony and Olivia Vinall/ Ph: Johan Persson

Here’s the really hard problem when it comes to writing about Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem, newly opened at the National Theatre's Dorfman auditorium: How do you reconcile for yourself – not to mention for anyone else – the fact that the latest and possibly (though let us hope not) last play by this most supreme talent is not very good? His first play since Rock ‘n’ Roll nine years ago bears numerous Stoppard trademarks and even set-ups, not to mention an opening exchange between a young prodigy and her older tutor that echoes Thomasina and Septimus from Arcadia, the kindred spirits this time grown and entangled at once intellectually and between the sheets.
But whereas the verbal dazzle in Stoppard’s best plays – and there are none better than Arcadia, whose 1993 National Theatre opening night I shall never forget – springs from or is a function of character, the braniac chat this time about consciousness (the actual “hard problem” of the title), cost-benefit analysis, and the vagaries of altruism and goodness and so on seem collectively applied to the characters from the outside in, like some sort of especially showy impasto. In Arcadia, it’s both enlightening and oddly sexy when Valentine holds forth on iterated algorithms, much like the doomed forbear from within his own family, Thomasina, who can take on any theorem that comes her way. The Hard Problem, by contrast, gives us cerebration by the bucket-full alongside a peculiar overreliance on tears. I can’t remember the last time I saw a play whose heroine spent so much time moist-eyed even when the audience is not.
The reason for the upset afflicting poor Hilary (a spirited Olivia Vinall, who justifies yet again the faith that her director, Nicholas Hytner, has shown in putting career-making roles her way) turns out to have not all that much to do with the on-again/off-again carnal tendencies of her studly tutor, Spike (Damien Molony, sporting a buffed physique that suggests he likes pumping weights as well as ideas). Instead, Hilary is haunted by the fate of the young girl she gave up for adoption following a teenage pregnancy belonging to a shaming period in her young life, though any further specifics are withheld as arbitrarily as Stoppard, in Arcadia, refuses to tell us just why it is that play’s Hannah Jarvis refuses – literally and metaphorically – to dance.
In the interests of preserving the element of surprise, one perhaps shouldn’t say too much else about the generational aspect of this latest plot, beyond expressing a perhaps contentious belief that what Stoppard’s characters seem to call coincidence looks in narrative terms dangerously like contrivance. There’s an American squillionaire (played by the very English Anthony Calf) on hand to bark loudly down phones – as Americans, one infers, are wont to do – and to make one wonder what happened to the play about Big Money that Stoppard had said he was writing some years back. Only vestiges of that are in evidence here. And lest there was any doubt that Hilary is meant to be irresistible to all and sundry, she spends the play being hit on by one character after another, The Hard Problem making history of sorts as the first Stoppard play in my experience to feature not one lesbian but three.
The play is atypically short for Stoppard (running a good hour less than Rock ‘n’ Roll) but seems to come to a halt without bothering to investigate any of its characters in any substantive way – Hilary in particular leaving us to wonder whether so clever a brain-science employee ever pauses to talk about matters quotidian or commonplace as she ricochets between verbal Mensa exams on the one hand and crying jags on the other. Hytner’s approach to the material seems polite but oddly diffident, as if not wanting to ask the hard questions of his playwright that might release some actual drama. Bob Crowley’s spare (antiseptic, even) design offers the image of a neural cluster hovering above the action, the overly long scene changes covered over by copious passages from Bach. The net result is an exercise in self-sabotaging refinement, one’s overall disappointment best encapsulated by that forever-rending question posed in Arcadia when Thomasina asks, “How can we sleep for grief?”


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