Stoppard's new play lifts the lid on brain science

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 29, 2015 7:54 AM

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) - Tom Stoppard, the grand old man of British theater, is back with his first new stage play in nine years, tackling typically big ideas: consciousness, science and God.

"The Hard Problem" is a 100-minute gallop, with no interval, through neurobiology, religion and improbable "black swan" events in financial markets that is both contemporary and timeless. Along the way there are tales of altruistic vampire bats and some good jokes.

While the play fizzes with ideas it is arguably less successful as a human drama, and reviews of the production at the National Theatre's intimate Dorfman venue in London were mixed on Thursday.

Still, a new Stoppard play is always an event and there are few tickets left until April, when it will be broadcast live to hundreds of cinemas around the world.

Ideas are always central for the 77-year-old Czech-born author, who was named the "greatest living playwright" at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards last year for half a century of work ranging from stage plays like "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" and "Arcadia" to the movie "Shakespeare in Love".

The audience gets fair warning it is in for an intellectual workout this time, from a program that features letters between Stoppard and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on Cartesian dualism, or the separation of mind and matter.

The set hammers home the point, too, with LED lights firing like neurons over the action below.

The opening scene plunges straight into a debate on game theory between two lovers, representing opposing views on whether consciousness is more than the mechanistic activity of molecules -- a question described by philosopher David Chalmers as "the hard problem".

The story centers on one of them, a semi-religious psychology researcher called Hilary, who gets a tough message on the materialist realities of modern brain research from her tutor-lover Spike.

"If you want something cuddly, try business studies," he tells her, as she prepares for an interview at the “Krohl Institute for Brain Science”.

Spike is an archetypal Darwinian reductionist, renaming Raphael’s Madonna and Child as “Woman Maximising Gene Survival”.

Straddling the scientific cut-and-thrust is hedge fund manager Jerry Krohl, the institute's founder, who is fascinated by how neuroscience meshes with the herd psychology behind financial markets.

And tying the plot together is a tale of Hilary's absent child, which is finally resolved in a plot twist that is either a highly unlikely coincidence or a "miracle", depending on where the viewer stands on the atheism-religion curve.

Stoppard's play does not ultimately answer the hard problem, which is no great surprise, given the uncertainty among scientists as to whether the human brain is actually complex enough ever to understand itself.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Roche)