The Hard Problem (National Theatre)


Tom Stoppard’s new play for nearly a decade is also Nicholas Hytner’s last directing job before he stands down as Artistic Director at the National Theatre, so here we are at the new Dorfman Theatre (Cottesloe as was) to see it.

The picture above shows the set design by Bob Crowley which includes a very clever metal and light structure which buzzes with music (Bach) and fizzes with fireworks in order to distract from scene changes or enhance one key dinner party set piece.

The Hard Problem’s focus is on the mind, the brain, psychology, and coincidence, and it centres around a fairly large and unlikely coincidence between Olivia Vinall’s totally unconvincing professor (she looks too much like Elsa from Frozen) and Anthony Calf’s well-acted Jerry Krohl (a spiky billionaire who is a bully in the office and a benign domestic at home).  This weakens the play somewhat, as does the pre- and post-coital interplay between Vinall’s Hilary and her tedious lover-tutor Spike (Damien Molony).

This play has a lot to say about academia and publishing (fairly accurate, as it happens), office politics and rivalries, family, life choices, and systems of belief – Hilary is a believer in God who kneels to pray by her bed each night.  But it is mired in cliche – the over-achieving Indian scholar (Parth Thakerar), the brilliant female Chinese mathematician (Vera Chok), the sunny lesbian pair of academic and Pilates instructor (Lucy Robinson and Rosie Hilal).  There’s also the sexist academic who interviews candidates in the men’s room (Jonathan Coy) and the fiercely intelligent privileged child (I think this was Eloise Webb of the three Cathys cast).

Broad characterizations aside, this does try to do something interesting, and to see a more cerebral play than most fill its 100 minute running time is not without interest.  Not vintage Stoppard, or vintage Hytner, but worth a visit.