Monday, 20 April 2015

NT Live: Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Back in the Gate cinema on April 16, a crowded audience gathered for the NT Live screening of The Hard Problem, directed by Sir Nicolas Hytner. It is his last production at the National Theatre as he bids farewell to his post as the artistic director of the National after a 12-year stint.  
Tom Stoppard’s first play in nine years is a mean feat of critical theorising about consciousness and everything connected to it: philosophy; evolution; biochemistry; neurology; and much more. Even religion gets a mention and plays a part in this head scratching performance. The Hard Problem speaks for itself. It is a question that has been bugging intellectuals since the 4th century in classical Greek philosophy (and even earlier for Eastern philosophers.) For those who are a novice to critical theory or have never stepped into a philosophy a-level class, they might be in trouble here though.
This isn’t the first of its kind for Stoppard. He is known for writing brilliant theatrical works that include themes of political freedom, linguistics and the meaning of life, and for this The Hard Problem shoves audiences into a dialectic much like the way Plato and Socrates challenged each other five hundred years ago. 
By comparison, many who expect the wittiness and cleverness of Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia will be let down. That is not to say that The Hard Problem is not as witty or as clever as Acadia. No, in fact the play is both these things but in a different way. Arcadia combines the manifestations of pre-19th century Romanticism idealism with nature. While Arcadia brushes upon some interesting thought provoking ideas, The Hard Problem gets deep, so deep it hits the academic books and looses the audiences’ attention unless they are familiar with the terminology and theoretical notions e.g. the Prisoner’s dilemma, which crops up almost twenty times in the play.
Between the young psychology student Hilary and Spike, played convincingly by Damien Molony as Hilary’s university mentor, cinema viewers can see the dynamic movement in their heated debates as camera focus onto one another. Camera 1 focuses on Hilary. Immediately after, camera 2 moves into Spike who aggressively rebukes her with a brutal and gutless definition on altruism, the ‘selfish gene’, if you will, and so on. Their intellectual frustrations are set aside while they maintain an odd,  attachment-free relationship. 
Olivia Vinall gives an electrifying performance of Hilary not only in seasoned application of verbal assaults but with Hilary's deep-seated passion as a young mother who gave up her child for adoption at the age of 15. After gaining a position at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science Hilary delivers a paper hypothesising God as the answer to all things including consciousness, which isn’t good; it won’t fund the institute’s research facilities. 
This is other side of Stoppard’s play that he highlights through the character of Jerry, who is wickedly acted by Anthony Calf. He exhibits a hedge-fund millionaire who swears and shouts down at his employees whilst portraying a genuine and caring father. There’s an emotional twist to the story that ends the play in a hopeful fashion, but I shan't share any spoilers here.
Vera Chok, Jonathan Coy, Rosie Hilal, Parth Thakerar, Lucy Robinson and little Daisy Jacob come on top as playing small parts of this mind-boggling 'abstract' of a play, yet not much depth is offered about their characters. The emphasis is ultimately on Hilary’s journey who tries to find herself, understand her conscience and grapple with her own hard problem. 
With Bach’s enthusiastic piano solos that are lightly and lyrically played by Benjamin Powell and Bob Crowley and Mark Henderson set design of colourful light rods and wires; that light up like brain neurons or brain currents, Hytner ensures audiences gain a sense of the profound and complex mindset of its protagonist.

NT Live Encore of The Hard Problem on the April 21 in Gate Cinema at 12pm. The Encore is also available throughout the week in London cinemas including Picture Houses on the 24th. Check your local cinema.
(Photo courtesy of National Theatre)
Also showing at the National Theatre until May 27th. Check their website.