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The Hard Problem

Published 29 January 2015

What’s it all about?

Consciousness, duality and the philosophical and psychological debate of altruism vs egoism.

Feeling daunted? Don’t be. Tom Stoppard’s much anticipated first play for almost ten years makes the arguments bite sized and accessible as his central character Hilary goes from student to scientist, with enough supporting characters to ask the questions you might be thinking as the debate unfolds.

A paradoxical novelty amongst her fellow pragmatic neuroscientists, Hilary prays to God every night and struggles to accept the proposition that her every emotion is purely the result of brain processes potentially so predictable, every human reaction could one day be replicated by a computer.

Quite frankly, if you’re not following the play equation for equation, my advice would be to stop worrying and go with it. Flowing alongside this scientific tutorial is an engrossing storyline that brings the abstract ideas into sharp focus as Hilary searches for her very own miracle.

Who’s in it?

Watch out world, Olivia Vinall has officially arrived. Clearly fated for brilliant things, the young actor follows her breakthrough role as Desdemona in Nicholas Hytner’s hugely acclaimed Othello to star as Hilary. With a surprising twist – which I won’t reveal here although, given how crucial it is to the play, no doubt many reviews will choose to – Vinall is gifted the challenge of transforming from the clichéd idealist student we first meet to something more complicated altogether. She breathes believable life into the role, proving herself to be a truly magnetic force on stage.

A confident Damien Molony provides stark contrast as her bullish, dogmatic and cutting tutor turned lover, who, alongside Parth Thakerar’s strutting, money-hungry Amal add shade to Hilary’s otherwise almost overwhelming goodness.  

What should I look out for?

Bob Crowley’s striking design that combines a minimalistic, stylish set with a stunning structure of lights that sparkle and jolt like a brain packed with overactive synapses.

In a nutshell?

Olivia Vinall is electric in Tom Stoppard’s latest provocative offering that questions the very building blocks of our being, from the mysteries of morality to the cold facts of evolution.

What’s being said on Twitter?

@katie_jacobs Really enjoyed the new Tom Stoppard ‘the hard problem’ at the NT. Mystery of consciousness & behavioural economics – nice

@willhoyle Saw Stoppard’s new play #TheHardProblem at the National last night. Will the critics enjoy it as much as I did though?

Will I like it?

There is a very particular feeling to stories set within an academic institution or against a scientific backdrop and this production is dripping with the gravitas such a setting lends. The one hard problem with this play, however, is while the science may be bite-sized, the drama isn’t always as easy to swallow. But if you’re happy to accept that coincidences can sometimes be fantastical in nature, it proves an engrossing, thought-provoking watch.

The Hard Problem is playing at the National Dorfman Theatre until 27 May. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.

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