After nine years, Tom Stoppard has crept, not stormed back into the theatre, with a cautious and oddly sweet look at mind and soul. His approach normally puts the JSTOR into storytelling, whether or not all the research quite fits. Here, the title’s “hard problem”, aka the nature of consciousness, is made easy with tales of bats, cow stomachs, and softly folksy meditations on God and the sublime.
Writers don’t normally try to get under the skin of scientists and hedge fund traders without tanning them into unworldly heroes or psychopaths first. But although it feels like several of his scientists are just there to read out the paragraphs of Stoppard’s philosophy essay, his head banker Jerry is a fascinating creation. Anthony Calf makes mincemeat of the role, and his underlings, lurching from his default geniality to insensate rage.
He’s funded an elite “brain science” institute in his own name, for reasons that might be altruism or pure pragmatism. Hilary is a hopelessly underqualified applicant who wants in, despite her unfashionable belief in human goodness. Olivia Vinall shines in the role, giving her a slightly offbeat sincerity that makes sense of a character whose written birthday feels several decades earlier than her staged one. She gave up a baby she had at the age of fifteen for adoption (a practice more common in the shameful sixties than the late nineties), and wears a negligee as she’s seduced by her tutor as a student at Loughborough. He’s Spike (Damien Molony) a deeply slappable creation who patronises her into sleeping with him as he helps her argue her way into a PhD.
She wins her supervisor Leo (a faintly under-powered Jonathan Coy) round with her romantic take on the “hard problem” – or, simply, whether consciousness is just an inevitable part of the brain’s functioning or something intangible and other. But once she arrives, she’s told to keep quiet about God at all costs, as psychology is threatened with obsolescence by brain science that claims to explain the conscience as much as the cortex. It’s all part of Stoppard’s gently cynical view of scientific academia: rather than refined academics perfecting arcane formulae over decades, they’re on the hunt for “sexy” papers that will make a splash on the cover of Nature Magazine, then be bowdlerised into pawns in a pop science game that answers the mind v soul conundrum everyone wants to master.
The Dorfman Theatre has been elaborately remodelled for complete flexibility, but you wouldn’t know it from Bob Crowley’s end-on design, an unambitious tangle of twinkling metal synapses. Between scenes, it glows and flashed in a Son et LumiÃ¨re spectacle that looks like a Christmas light display commissioned by a particularly wealthy brain surgeon. Combined with outgoing artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s staid approach, which intersperses scenes with gentle piano classics, there’s not much to sharpen this play’s softer edges, although he keeps its philosophical dialogues lithe and agile.
Over in under two hours, it’s not until after the fairy-lights fade that real discomfort sets in: with a picture of academia where pretty young women sleep with their supervisors so they’ll do the hard Maths bits for them. With Hilary’s naive statements, thrown out to be landed with a dose of cynicism from her male superiors. And with an ill thought out lesbian relationship between two women in her department, which relies on a picture of female interaction that’s somewhere between Daisy Pulls It Off and Lord Of The Flies: all hockey stick reminisces and casual cruelties.
There’s nothing much to set the spirit, as well as the sky, alight here. But like Hilary’s paper, it’s an underpowered essay on a topic that can’t really be solved, and you won’t get popular talking about.