I have been delaying this one for a while as it will mean that I have to think hard and organize any thoughts that do emerge. Not having to do this very much these days is one of the great luxuries of being retired but then again it is partly to exercise my brain that I am writing this blog in the first place. It certainly wouldn’t be because I think that lots of people are avidly reading it because I know exactly how many are and believe me it is not many. However, I hasten to thank all those that do take time to at least browse the site. It is much appreciated.
Some of you may be aware that Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” began a run at the National Theatre in January. In fact I tried to get tickets on the occasion of our early visit to London but it was way too early in the run and none were to be had – sold out!
So I was very pleased to see that our local art house cinema “The Little Theatre” – (the world’s only Georgian cinema) – participates in the NT Live program and that “The Hard Problem” was being broadcast live one evening recently. First let me say that I think the whole NT Live exercise is a fantastically “democratic” institution, bringing, as it does, great theatre to many people all round the country who would not otherwise be able to attend a live performance at the NT, nor perhaps even a provincial – oh what an excruciatingly Londoncentric concept – theatre.
Secondly, I am very glad that I have seen the play and even more glad that we didn’t fork out for a trip up to London to see it as, yes, it has to be said, it really wasn’t up to scratch. Of course the production was of the highest standard, the actors pretty much all excellent, all as you would expect really, but the play itself, not so much.
Maybe, I thought, as I prepared to write this, I will be sticking my neck out a bit; but no, the first three reviews that I found in the Telegraph, the Guardian and in the New Scientist were all in agreement that it was disappointing. So why was this? Well perhaps part of the problem derived from the fact that, as Stoppard himself said in an interview, he wanted to write a short and succinct, one act piece about the “Hard Problem”, named after the Australian philosopher (and no, that is not an oxymoron) David Chalmers’ formulation in his 1995 paper, that I am sure you are all familiar with, titled “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”. That was always going to be the “hard” bit for Stoppard and as a result the play is actually about a lot of other things which while all very interesting in their own right are not really part of the hard problem at all which is barely addressed.
I am not going to explicate the plot as if this were a newspaper review (and warning, some slight spoilers follow) except to say that many aspects of contemporary life are pulled in such as the nature of academic research, its integrity and its funding, the scientific method particularly as it is applied to the area of behavioural psychology, the pervasiveness of evolutionary biology as an explanation of “everything” when it comes to human behaviour, the problems of teacher/student relationships, the behaviour of hedge funds, the cynical application of computer algorithms to the market and to human motivation, the funding of academic institutes by obscenely wealthy individuals for dubious reasons and so on and so on. It is a bewildering array of topics and arguments are tossed back and forth by characters who are formed largely to express competing viewpoints and in the middle of it all is a coincidence of such monumental unlikelihood as to strain all credibility that also manages to introduce the issues of abortion and adoption for heavens sake.
So where in all this is, in fact, is the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness? We have the somewhat risible spectacle of the central character, an ambitious young female research psychologist, saying her prayers because she believes in god, putting her firmly in the old dualist camp, on her knees at her bedside like some little girl in a Victorian story for children just before jumping into bed with her erstwhile tutor for a quick shag followed by a heated discussion about the nature of altruism in human evolution and maybe it was in there somewhere, consciousness.
Finally, our heroine, academic reputation in tatters owing to her being the subject of a lesbian crush by her research assistant (no more spoilers) disappears off into the sunset to get her life back together again by studying philosophy in New York. Yikes!
That said, I would not dissuade anyone from going to see the play. Despite everything it is quite stimulating and requires a good deal of concentration to follow and I did quite enjoy it despite everything.