TOA/V – Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem

by Tom Stoppard
Dir: Nicholas Hytner

I love that Tom Stoppard’s idea of a fast-paced, breezy play because he wanted to do something ‘light’ is to focus on whether science can measure consciousness and whether it is something that can be measured. I can understand not wanting all that palaver. It’s in the newly refurbished Dorfman Theatre at the National, formerly the Cottesloe. It remains an intimate space (fewer than 500 seats) but has a lot of flexibility. The play requires little in the way of sets, but the chandelier/light fixture offered a good visual refresher for scene changes and suggested an abstract picture of firing neurons.

Olivia Vinall is the star. She plays Hilary, the ambitious young psychology researcher as both haunted by a mistake in her past, confident of her intellect and alternately embarrassed and proud of her Northern roots. Vinall is stunningly luminous which seems to have distracted a few reviewers from noticing how sharp she is. Hilary is quick to learn, too; the smug men that surround her don’t seem to notice for the most part, like her tutor and eventual lover Spike (Damien Molony) and particularly, her competitor for the prestigious fellowship Amal (Parth Thakarer).

But Stoppard’s just as interested in the kinds of intelligence and how we use them. He’s suspicious of ‘pure’ knowledge but realises that the uses to which we put knowledge matter even more. There are two key suppressions of information: one has an economic benefit and stays quiet. The other explodes because it’s largely a matter of trust. Information and knowledge are currencies and the speculation in them is just as artificial as those in stocks and bonds, though practitioners like to believe it’s all straightforward and reasonable. The questions asked — and how they’re asked — matter. And a nimble mind will prove more powerful than one that can find the ‘right’ answer only because of the way the questions were framed.

Twists turns, suspicions and shifting alliances: all fun. I’ve seen complaints that Stoppard hasn’t offered any answers; it’s the questions that matter though.

As always, I am so grateful for the NT Live as I don’t have to pine quite so much for London theatre experiences when I am far away. And thanks to Time & Space for featuring the programs!

See the round up of links at Todd’s blog.


  1. realthog says:

    That looks stunning — I must explore the NT Live link.

    Olivia Vinall is . . . stunningly luminous

    Golly, yes.

    Sorry in a way to hear the theatre’s no longer called the Cottesloe. I used to be a pal of one of the relevant Cottesloes.

    1. katelaity says:

      Ah, shame that. Yeah, I guess whoever gave the most money recently :-\ but oh my, how I love the NT Live. So many things I would have missed but for that. And truly, Vinall absolutely glows.

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