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nt live: tom stoppard’s new play: the hard problem

Inset pic- Olivia Vinall plays Hilary. Featured pic- Damien Malony plays Spike and Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem
Inset pic- Olivia Vinall plays Hilary. Featured pic- Damien Malony plays Spike and Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem

What exactly is consciousness? Is our identity the product of what Francis Crick calls “a vast assembly of nerve cells”? How much is human behaviour the product of altruism or egoism? Is there a God?!

These are some of the questions that Tom Stoppard asks in his deeply moving and explorative play, THE HARD PROBLEM.

This is the first new play by Stoppard in nine years and it has been produced as part of this years’ NT Live season. It also represents Nicholas Heytner’s final and very stylish production as the Artistic Director of the National Theatre.

In the world of brain studies and evolutionary science Stoppard’s work asks the hard difficult questions of life and the meaning of existence.

The main character Hilary is played by Olivia Vinall. We are first introduced to her as a young psychology researcher anxiously preparing for a job interview. Having obtained a much desired research post at a swish brain science institute, she is then able to conduct experiments on adult motivation and to sanction other experiments on child behaviour patterns.

The play is elegantly written, as always, by Stoppard ( ég his Arcadia ‘ and ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’) and very challenging morally and intellectually at various points.

Stoppard postulates that consciousness can’t be explained in purely mechanical computer/scientific terms and that there are intrinsic values that depend on an overall moral intelligence that can’t be defined and analysed.

The play is replete with witty dialogue and some wonderful, soaring monologues including one where Spike dismisses Raphael’s famous painting Madonna and Child as a ‘woman maximising gene survival’.

The multi-purpose single flexible set fluidly covers the time lines and various location changes. It also features a fabulous hanging chandelier of tentacled flashing lighting- designed by Bob Crowley and Mark Henderson- that looks like a collection of neurons in the brain.

The production features some glorious, passionate Bach piano sequences, as played by Benjamin Powell, for the bridging music between scenes.

As Hilary, Vinall glows, – we see her transform from nervous interviewee to a vibrant, confident researcher and academic.  Hilary’s story isn’t a simple one. She is haunted by her past. She gave up her daughter for adoption at birth and longs to find her.

Vinali’s performance is multi-layered and dazzling. There are more moral questions towards the end when Hilary has to decide what to do when she discovers a most important undisclosed fact about the paper Bo, (her protege excellently played by Vera Chok ) did all the stats for and she has just published .

Spike, at first her tutor and then a mentoring colleague, her occasional lover who is terribly clever but appears to lacks warmth, is played by the  handsome Damien Moloney.

Hard punching billionaire guru of the institute Jerry, a financial bigwig dealing with the tricky unpredictability of the financial markets who is fascinated by the Problem, is magnetically played by Anthony Calf.

Other performances are equally fine- Jonathon Coy plays Hilary’s stressed departmental boss, Parth Thakebrar plays mathematician Amal, and Rosie Hilal and  Lucy Robinso play Hilary’s friend, Julia and her partner Ursula.

Stoppard’s challenging thought provoking play offers a defence of virtue and the possibility of hope in this world,- a quest for absolute values and a belief in the possibility of selfless virtue.

Running time is just under two hours without interval. The film also includes a wonderful behind the scenes short documentary. Great value, THE HARD PROBLEM, is part of the NT Live screenings, playing at selected cinemas from Saturday May 23.

For more about  NT Live: THE HARD PROBLEM  visit the website –


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