In the first scene of Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem, the charming but arrogant neuroscientist is arguing with Hilary, a psychology student about evolutionary biology. ‘Altruism is always self-interest,’ says Spike, ‘it just needs a little working out’. In a single line, Spike captures the dilemma at the centre of Stoppard’s latest work: whether pure altruism really exists and what we can understand about human nature in its light.
This thread glitters through the centre of the work and is the source of much of the dramatic tension, not least as Hilary is brilliantly portrayed by Olivia Vinall, whose confident uncomplicated performance stands out amid a consistently strong cast. The sharp setting and candid performances are certainly enjoyable but the golden thread is often lost amid layers of sometimes tangential and ultimately unnecessary neuroscience.
We meet Hilary as a student but most of the action happens when she is a post-doctoral researcher at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science – a privately funded vanity institution built by the condescending hedge-fund guru Jerry Krohl. The setting is key and Stoppard has clearly amassed an impressively wide knowledge of both the practice and findings of modern cognitive science, but it’s also clear he never fully got to grips with its significance and, consequently, the play is somewhat awkward to the trained ear.
This is a typical and often pedantic criticism of plays about technical subjects but in Stoppard’s case, the work is primarily about what defines us as human, in light of the science of human nature, and because of this, the material often comes off as clunky. It’s not that the descriptions are inaccurate – allusions to optogenetics, Gödel and the computability of consciousness, game theory, and cortisol studies of risk in poker players, are all in context – but Stoppard doesn’t really understand what implications these concepts have for either each other or for his main contention. Questions about mind and body, consciousness and morality, are confused at times, and it’s not clear that Stoppard really understands the true implications of the Hard Problem of consciousness.
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