Tom Stoppard’s first play in nine years is a story of neuroscience and philosophy, altruism and egotism. We meet Hillary, who begins as an undergraduate student. She has applied for a PhD position at the fictional Krohl Institute for Brain Science, which she believes she will need a miracle to get in, and Imperial ‘for the hell of it’. It’s a genuine name-drop, the audience titters as her tutor-cum-lover Spike tells her she is on course for a 2:1 at Loughborough.
Hillary is given a place at the Krohl institute, thanks to a miracle or, as her antihero Spike would have it, a series of sheer coincidence. What follows is a journey through Hillary’s mind and career. Stoppard has often been criticised of writing overly intellectually. Here, the subjects his characters discuss are certainly, at times, difficult to follow. But the play itself progresses swiftly and steadily, and is both graspable and enjoyable. It glides on for an hour and forty minutes effortlessly, even without an interval.
Our characters, primarily Hillary and Spike, conflict upon the most basic arguments of philosophy – dualism versus materialism, and altruism versus egoism. Charles Darwin feared altruism could be the stumbling block to his entire theory – why would organisms perform acts to benefit others at a cost to themselves? This is a question to which the characters repeatedly find themselves at the brunt of.
Hillary is a funny one – I have not met many neuroscience students (having been one myself) who hold beliefs so contra to the reigning scientific dogmas with such fervour. She does not accept Spike’s egoist argument that all acts of ‘altruism’ turn out to be selfish in the end – but Julia, pilates instructor at the Krohl Institute, stops Spike, and much of the audience, in their tracks about Hillary. She believes in good for the sake of being good ‘because she is’.
The theme of selfishness versus goodness is not reinforced subtly enough, and the audience is constantly questioning the motives of the characters; personal and professional, and sometimes both. When hopeful interviewee Bo brings Hillary a coffee, she is threateningly interrogated. ‘The man told me to bring you the coffee, so I brought you the f***ing coffee!’ She is promptly hired. This is one of many gently comedic moments. The play could not be described as particularly dramatic, it plods along with no real climax, and the subplot twist can be seen a mile off, but this is simply not its style. Its charm lies in having its characters constantly debating and questioning each other, meaning that it manages to catch the audience, who are kept wondering, and second-guessing, throughout.
Olivia Vinall as Hillary is the stand-out performance, as expected, in her lead role. She captures well the changes in Hillary from undergraduate student to a leading researcher in her field, and as the play progresses she gradually brings out grounding realness to Hillary who, at the beginning of the play, and on paper, seems an unlikely personality. Her emotions are acted as raw and real as her convictions, helping to solidify this ephemeral character.
A giant, cerebral structure hovers over Bob Crowley’s dynamic and sleek set. This is most definitely a play which sets out to make you think, something which it neither hides nor shies away from. It would perhaps be mentally taxing or tedious were it not for the enthusiasm and conviction of Hillary. The discussions and debates between characters might come off as pretentious, but Stoppard cleverly placed them as scientists in a leading institution, which settles them in a believable reality.
I caught the bus home, and was surprised to see Olivia Vinall and co-star Vera Chok sitting behind me as I got off. They looked as real and genuine as the characters and their philosophical discussions had onstage.
Image: Olivia Vinall as Hillary in The Hard Problem. Image courtesy of the National Theatre.