The Hard Problem

  • Our critic's rating:
    Average press rating:
    Thursday, January 29, 2015
    Review by:
    Mark Shenton

    It's recently been bandied about a lot - not least by last year's Evening Standard Theatre Awards - that Tom Stoppard is our now greatest living playwright. So it is unfortunate that his return to the London stage, at the age of 77 and with his first new play since 2006, should prove such a disappointment.

    It does, at least, have the merit of (comparative) brevity; it plays for just 100 minutes, without an interval. But as the first new play in the refurbished (and renamed) Dorfman Theatre - and as Nick Hytner's last production of his tenure as artistic director of the National - it was hugely anticipated.

    Yet for all the art of its provocative philosophising, there's not enough to engage the heart, let alone enrage (or even enlarge) the spirit. Given that the play is about the challenges of the mind and our consciousness expressing a free will over the way evolution has taught us to behave, I wanted more feeling and less thought.

    Of course Stoppard demonstrates his usual dazzling, sometimes dizzying facility with words and that rare ability to make dense philosophical concepts come alive to a regular audience. But it is wrapped here in a plot that sometimes strains belief.

    Which may, of course, be the point. Wild coincidence may be far-fetched; but we can never rule it out. That's why a system that tries to map our behaviours will never entirely work.

    Here a young researcher called Hilary is trying to come to grips with the workings of the brain at the Krohl Institute for Brian Science - a research organisation set up by an apparently philanthropic hedge-fund billionaire. But is he really being altruistic, or is it all about gaining a competitive advantage when it comes to the market trading of his asset management company?

    Nicholas Hytner provides an elegant, highly watchable production full of terrific performances, led by Olivia Vinall as Hilary. But even actors as accomplished as her, Damien Molony as her lover and Jonathan Coy as her boss can't make its plot contrivances seem convincing.


    "I wish this production was a high-point in both men’s careers. But there’s no getting round it: this is a major disappointment."
    Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph

    "Even if the play occasionally suffers from information overload, it is still a rich, ideas-packed work that offers a defence of goodness whatever its ultimate source. The play also works because we are made to care about Hilary, who is excellently played by Olivia Vinall."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "Hytner directs an elegant, incisive account of a piece that buzzes with complex ideas, passionately and wittily expressed, but which never quite exerts a strong enough grip as drama."
    Paul Taylor for The Independent

    "Flecked with Stoppard’s wry, ironic humour and luminous intelligence, directed with exemplary lucidity by Hytner, this is a play that, movingly, wrestles with deep questions about what makes us who we are and with the implications of materialism."
    Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    The Guardian - The Telegraph - The Independent

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