Stoppard Takes On The Boffins

Staging a drama entitled The Hard Problem must be the sum of any theatre marketing department’s nightmares. Fortunately for the National Theatre, this one was written by Tom Stoppard and would have sold out even if Sir Tom had named it after the HMRC tax code. It is the first play since the writer once dubbed “a one-man education centre” delivered Rock ‘n’ Roll, about the tergiversations of Czech intellectuals, nine years ago and a valedictory for Sir Nicholas Hytner as artistic boss of the National. This Sir-heavy production lives up to that billing: elegant and high-minded.

Like most of the really difficult puzzles of philosophy, the “hard problem” of how our consciousness can be explained is simple but defeating. Given that we are trapped inside it, philosophers from John Locke to Thomas Nagel have wondered how we might escape the “veil of perception” or discover what it is like to be a bat (Nagel thought we never would, so bats can keep their mysteries to themselves). Recent advances in biochemistry and understanding of the brain have given ammunition to scientific materialists, arguing that consciousness is nothing more than a dizzy map of chemically-enabled connections which light up when driven by stimuli or evolutionary demands, like a giant Tube map. Stoppard sets out to challenge them.

A heady mix of philosophy, science and faith is funnelled into Stoppard’s play, set in up-market academia. Hilary (a lithe Olivia Vinall) starts out at as a psychology student at Loughborough, falling intermittently for Spike, a know-it-all tutor who thinks that the mind is just “pounds of grey matter” and paintings of Madonna and Child should be renamed “woman maximising gene survival”. This patchy affair is a vehicle for vintage Stoppardesque quips: “You can’t sleep with me: I’m your pupil,” teases Hilary. “That would be unheard of in the history of higher education,” replies Spike.

Hilary escapes to a starry research institute funded by Jerry Krohl, a central-casting hedgefunder who says annoying things like “the name’s on the building”. In the world of expensive limewashed panelling and ergonomic desks, Hilary meets Bo, a Chinese researcher (Vera Chok) , who develops a crush on her and skews some of her mentor’s research to help Hilary make the case for inherent goodness in humans. If this sounds like a series of PPE lectures, with a thin veneer of drama, that is largely because it is. Everyone is in love with everyone else—and a mini-Greek contrivance of the plot about an adopted child turning up in   a “one in a trillion chance” is a stretch. Somehow, though, the old Stoppard magic shines through, because he cares enough about scientific materialism to interrogate where it might lead and why it makes us feel enlightened and uneasy at the same time. This may not be his best work, for the same reason that Woody Allen’s later films are not as good as Annie Hall or Shakepeare’s late-life writing does not sparkle as much as his earlier output. Hilary cannot win her arguments against the Richard Dawkins tendency. But The Hard Problem is still ingenious, intellectually demanding theatre.

More aggravating workplace problems are explored in Mike Bartlett’s Bull, in which three characters in a nameless office fight over two jobs. The Young Vic’s production, directed by Claire Lizzimore, blends the competitive aggression of TV’s The Apprentice with a Darwinian view of the office as place where the weak are trampled underfoot. Bartlett often takes a metaphysical “what if?” and applies it to familiar circumstances. Earthquakes in London gave us a family struggling to adjust to the gloomy predictions of their climate-scientist dad. King Charles III poked fun at the royals in iambic pentameter and asked us what might happen if king and parliament ended up on different sides, nearly four centuries on from the last big quarrel.

Bull is a less whimsical offer, exploring the line between bullying and banter. Sam Troughton plays Thomas, the human bull at the mercy of the matador team leader Tony (Adam Jones) and accompanying harpy Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura). Lanky and uncertain, Thomas is systematically destroyed by Isobel and Tony. Quite a lot of this rings true and the ambiguities of how we feel about bullying in theory and what we practise when we can get away with it are wince-inducing. Bartlett told me in an interview that he had written about bullying because he had both been on the receiving end of it and fallen into dishing it out, under the comforting disguise of banter or teasing.

Alas, the play is undermined by two lazy tropes. One is the casting of Thomas as “comp boy done good” while Tony brims with assured privilege. That loading of the dice feels slick and deterministic. It is possible to go to state school, get a job and do well in Britain. The bigger flaw is that the play takes no account at all of the spread of anti-bullying legislation, nor indeed any presence of employment law. It feels like something written in the Caryl Churchill vein of critique during the Thatcher years. Today, as the unions’ negotiating power has waned, the charge of bullying is one that is frequently raised to challenge employers. Missing out all of that leaves Bull more tumultuous  than credible.

Finally, the unpredictable Trafalgar Studios has served up a miniature treat in Boa (as in constrictor and feather), a two-handed play starring Harriet Walter and her real-life husband Guy Paul. It excavates a fractious marriage between a disappointed, frequently drunk dancer and a once-brilliant war correspondent. Written by the up-and-coming Clara Brennan, the story is one of those tributes to enduring, irksome married love that hides nothing about the insecurities of the participants. As Boa, Walter is an edgy, physically needy wife, while Paul (a Broadway stalwart) ably captures the mixture of languid pride and rootlessness in a once-fêted journalist contemplating life beyond awards and adrenalin. The two of them act their socks off for a straight 90 minutes. It runs till March 7 in a tiny studio. Perhaps Mr and Mrs Walter have concluded that, like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, playing opposite one another for much longer might doom their home life. They reunite for Death of a Salesman at the Royal Shakespeare Company shortly after, and on this form it’s worth a trip to Stratford to see how they survive that.

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