Acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) returns to the National Theatre with his highly-anticipated new play The Hard Problem...
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Acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) returns to the National Theatre with his highly-anticipated new play The Hard Problem, directed by Nicholas Hytner (Othello, Hamlet, One Man, Two Guvnors). Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brainscience institute, is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness? This is 'the hard problem' which puts Hilary at odds with her colleagues who include her first mentor Spike, her boss Leo and the billionaire founder of the institute, Jerry. Is the day coming when the computer and the fMRI scanner will answer all the questions psychology can ask? Meanwhile Hilary needs a miracle, and she is prepared to pray for one.
This production of 'The Hard Problem' is interesting for two primary things. One being that it was Tom Stoppard's first full play in nine years. The other being that the production was touted as Nicholas Hytner's, also know him very well from his opera productions as well as his work with the National, last production for National Theatre as artistic director. The concept similarly sounded very interesting, and hopefully would not come over as over-complicated or bloated.
Couldn't help feeling disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it is a more than watchable production and don't regret seeing it in any way. It's just that to me 'The Hard Problem' is nowhere near among Stoppard's best work. Saw a fairly recent production of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' for instance, through the National Theatre Live treatment a couple of years after this, much prefer that play and was bowled over by the production. National Theatre Live's production of 'The Hard Problem' itself didn't blow me away either and Hytner should have gone out on a better high than this.
Part of the problem is the play. That is not to say the play is awful, far from it. The concept is an interesting one, it does provoke a lot of thought and it is insightful, the language unmistakably Stoppard in the intelligence department that is. That said, while it is great that there are a lot of ideas presented it can feel like overload at times and too many ideas to digest in one go with a subject as fairly complex as this. By Stoppard standards, 'The Hard Problem' as a play is on the conventional and contrived side as well, other work of his has far more depth and wit as well as more energy and emotional connection.
Flaws that translates as well in the production, which struggles to rise above those problems. Was not expecting wit, it is not that kind of play, and did find myself deep in thought which was great as that was the intent. Part of me felt though that it was a bit bland, warmth and feeling missing, and there could have been much more consistent momentum. Regarding the characters, although very well played, only Hilary properly interested and emotionally connected with me.
Despite the above, there are great things here. The production values are simple in colour and design but still elegant rather than being potentially ugly. The lighting is neither drab or garish and has atmosphere. The photography is not too stage bound while being intimate enough. It is thought provoking and there are signs of energy with Hilary lighting up the stage. Hytner does direct intelligently and at times delicately and sharply when appropriate and it is coherent at least, it just needed more momentum and emotion.
Also thought the entire cast did do a great job considering, lots of passion in the delivery and while the wit is not there in the dialogue there are moments in the interaction. Olivia Vinall, the production is worth watching for her alone as she's that good, being a revelation and it was very easy to warm to and root for her very early on, a great thing as part of what makes the play successful or not is Hilary and whether we care for her, which we do. Anthony Calf's sympathetic performance is the other cast standout.
Summarising, interesting but a disappointment as well. Wasn't sure whether to give it a 5 or 6, as both the play and production conflicted me but am feeling generous today and Vinall's performance was so great she's worth more than one star. If anybody gets more out of the play and production, that's fine, they just didn't completely do it for me. 6/10
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