SIR TOM STOPPARD’S NEW PLAY. WOW.
Is there more to human beings than organic goo? Can brain imaging explain why we judge, reason, imagine, generate metaphor and language? That is the “hard problem’ of the title. To the evo-bio-psychology tutor Spike (Damian Molony) it is one to close down rapidly, with equations. To him science knows – or will know soon – every particle of what a person is. To his pupil Hilary, moving on to work at the Krohl Institute of brain science – the question is as open and deep as a particular wound her heart bears from six years before. No grey cells explain her inchoate need, shocking to Spike, to pray each night to something unknown.“Explain sorrow” she challenges, and takes her sorrow into her academic quest into consciousness and feeling. Challenging the arrogant Amal (Parth Thakerar) who says computers play chess undistinguishably from humans she asks “Can you make a computer that minds losing?“
Overhead hangs a tangle of neon, synapses and flashing connections, an abstract brain. Below it on a sparsely set stage, a hundred minutes see six years of conversation and career, encounters and arguments and funny lines (Sir Tom seems to know exactly how ambitious academics jockey for position) . Because the Institute is the toy of a hedge-fund billionaire Krohl, its research parallels neatly with the work of his ‘quants’. Terse phone calls suggest market jitters and crashes, since as Amal says, when predicting market unpredictables you just can’t make a computer as stupid as people are. Spike’s analyses of risk-behaviour through saliva tests at the world poker championships find great favour, though, as a way towards the goal of “Monetizing the hormonal state of your trading desk”. Nice.
But it is not ENRON, nor one of this author’s drier mind-games. The human connections are given precise, delicate weight: youthful brilliance is not necessarily balanced with emotional stability. And it is the weight of feeling at the play’s heart which makes it shine. For this premiere marks three occasions: Tom Stoppard’s first play in a decade and Nicholas Hytner’s last hurrah as NT Artistic director, but also the consolidating evidence that Olivia Vinall as Hilary is a proper, central, serious talent. Not just (though she is) a creature of pale ethereal beauty, but a force fit to hold a play together. She has been Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia: it is a revelation to see her playing a modern young professional woman with a fierce and troubled intelligence, dartingly sharp timing and a visible, unsentimentally profound private sorrow.
Which is resolved, because it is a proper story, taking a path through almost fairytale coincidence (another philosophical-mathematical puzzle). And beyond her luminous performance there are enjoyable ironies: the way that researchers’ own irrational altruisms skew their findings, and the sly demonstration that those who heartily believe that everything is materially explicable and that there is no altruism are the ones who – er – don’t personally seem able to display any. Whereas Hilary, and Jonathan Coy as her immediate boss, search for the invisible with varying degrees of human grace. That I like. Maybe it’s a girl thing.
So a fine hundred minutes. Near the end, at a revelatory dinner-party scene, the diagrammatic neon tangle overhead becomes a firework display. Not inapt for this last rocket of the Hytner NT Age of Gold.
Box Office 020 7452 3000 to April
NT LIVE in cinemas nationwide on 16th April.
Dorfman Partner: Neptune Investment Management