20 April 2015

NT Live: The Hard Problem

Even in a career as distinguished as Sir Tom Stoppard’s, 16 April 2015 must have been noteworthy. The London newspapers carried a photograph of 19 of the 22 men and the one woman who constitute the Order of Merit and who had lunched at Windsor with the Queen the previous day. Admission to the Order recognises distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture and is the personal gift of the Sovereign. There is at present one vacancy; David Hockney was among the absentees on this occasion. Stoppard is on the Queen’s left but one in the photograph below. On the evening of 16 April NT Live broadcast a performance of his most recent play, The Hard Problem, from the National Theatre in London. This would have increased its audience immediately by several Orders of magnitude more than the all the seats which could be sold at the NT in a run from January to May.

The critics didn’t warm to the play when it opened – see, for example, Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph. I’m not surprised, there was too much science in it for the arts-educated opinion formers predominant in the UK media (though I would have expected the Spectator’s reviewer to appreciate that the main character was at the outset a student of psychology, not philosophy). Very unusually, out of the ten characters in The Hard Problem, only two, a schoolgirl and a Pilates teacher, are clearly not qualified at a high level in science or maths.

The Hard Problem appears to be set in the recent past, probably the early and late years of the last decade (Note 1). At the opening a psychology student, Hilary (2), slightly older than her contemporaries for reasons which become apparent, is about to graduate from Loughborough University. She has set her sights on a job in the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science set up by a successful hedge fund manager, Jerry Krohl. Her tutor and lover, Spike, helps her with her application although they are at odds over her religious inclinations and her belief in the power of prayer and, for example, as to whether altruism or “goodness” in any form is anything other than a product of evolutionary biology, “evo bio”, and best understood by game theory (3).

She obtains the post she wants at the Krohl after impressing Leo, head of the Institute’s psychology department, who sees her as an ally in an internal scientific turf war. Other scientists in the Institute with a mechanistic view of the human brain believe that sufficient computing power is all they need to model human behaviour. The “hard problem” is at the centre of these different approaches to identifying the nature of human consciousness. At the interview Hilary encounters Amal, a clever mathematician who, although not wanted by Leo, is immediately recruited by Jerry as a “quant” to work at his hedge fund (4). She meets an old school friend who teaches Pilates, a Googleplex-style perk the Institute provides to its employees. This coincidental encounter leads to a revelation about Hilary’s past.

A few years later Hilary has become well-established at the Institute but the hard problem remains unresolved and her views remain at odds with other scientific opinions including Spike’s. She gives a controversial paper at a conference in Venice and on return discovers that a basic error has been uncovered in some research for which she was responsible. She resigns from the Institute to become a philosophy student at New York University. But something she has prayed for has happened as a result of a remarkable coincidence - or not.

The Hard Problem was sold out in advance at the National Theatre and I would never have seen it but for NT Live. Like other Stoppard plays it needs to be read to fully appreciate all the ideas and wit he deploys. Unlike the critics I thought it was as good as Arcadia, but I’m just a techie with an evo bio world view. Whereas Arcadia was firmly set in England, I suspect Stoppard had an international audience in mind at the outset for The Hard Problem – one of the quants is Indian, another Chinese while Jerry is an American with a Japanese wife. I wonder whether the play’s approach to religion might have been shaped with consideration to US susceptibilities. The acting was all of a high standard, and, although personally I found Hilary difficult to understand, Olivia Vinall was totally convincing, an actress who will no doubt go far. Anthony Calf conveyed all the complexities, good and bad, of Jerry’s character, to me the most interesting in the play.

Whether it was the play, the nature of the Dorfman Theatre or an evolution in NT Live’s approach I don’t know, but by comparison with David Hare’s Skylight (posted about here last year) much of the sense of being in a theatre was lost in this showing. There were too many close-ups (below top) and camera angles which would not be available to a theatre audience and little sense of viewing a stage (below lower). Nonetheless the acting style in terms of gesture and voice projection remained theatrical rather than cinematic or televisual. Just because something can be done doesn’t make it desirable and not just in neuroscience. Too much elaboration by NT Live just because it is technically feasible may prove self-defeating if their intention remains that of offering an in-theatre experience.


(1) “… the early … years of the last decade” - the prop in this Tweet from NT Live supports 2000ish; sadly Hilary’s name is misspelled:

(2) Fashions in names change like much else - were there any Hilarys, male or female, under 30 in 2000?

(3) Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College London, talks about some of these themes in the play on SoundCloud.

(4) Amal’s pessimism about the hedge fund’s trading prospects, after he discovers a weakness in its computerised risk assessment system, enrages Jerry. A very similar problem in a bank is identified by a young quant like Amal in JC Chandor’s 2011 film, Margin Call.


The Guardian on 23 May 2015 reported a debate it had arranged "between a sceptical Tom Stoppard and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson", the latter believing that there is an evolutionary justification for altruism.  Anyone interested in the issues raised by Stoppard's play should read it.

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