Do critics have a Problem with Tom Stoppard's new play?
''The Hard Problem'' opened at the Dorfman Theatre last night
…The Hard Problem is as slippery as a bar of soap with the water running; the play's not so much beyond one's grasp as never quite within it… I'm not sure that the acting is of a sufficiently subtle, idiosyncratic and lip-smacking quality to carry us through the narrative hoops and linguistic niceties of biology, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience pertaining to the story of a researcher… every line - Stoppard never writes a duff one - is a point of view, or a diagnosis, or a theory. The play spins cleverly, too, into Stoppard's first look at unconventional sexual politics… And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go back to the text, which I've already read twice…
…I wish this production… was a high-point in both men's careers. But there's no getting round it: this is a major disappointment… whereas Arcadia settled in your soul, The Hard Problem barely gets skin-deep. At times I had to pinch myself that it was written by the great man himself; and at others moments I almost had to pinch myself to stay awake. Even though it's only 100 minutes long, at points it drags and even bores… almost all the characters, with the exception of Olivia Vinall's sparky, vital Hilary, are annoying, lacking in depth and detail… mainly I felt a stab of pity for Hytner, who directs with style and pace… With The Hard Problem, Hytner has got a footnote, not a magnum opus. Stoppard's formidable legacy is assured but it won't rest on this.
Tom Stoppard famously uses drama to explore problems, and in his absorbing new play he tackles some pretty momentous ones… Although there is almost too much to take in at a single 100-minute sitting, the competing arguments always have a strong emotional underpinning… Even if the play occasionally suffers from information overload, it is still a rich, ideas-packed work that offers a defence of goodness whatever its ultimate source. The play also works because we are made to care about Hilary, who is excellently played by Olivia Vinall. She brings out every facet of a woman who is altruistic, questing and vulnerable… Nicholas Hytner, in his final production as the National's head, directs with the stylistic clarity that has long been his trademark. Bob Crowley's design skilfully evokes the labyrinthine complexity of the human brain…
Tom Stoppard's first play for nine years is typically witty - an intellectually charged piece that delights in the slippery nature of language and pulses with interesting ideas… Vinall has a radiant vitality, suggesting Hilary's appealing openness yet also her deep wounds… Elegantly interpreted by Nicholas Hytner, in his final production as artistic director of the National Theatre, the play feels delicate and precise… But the approach is restrained. That's no accident. Stoppard is portraying characters who prefer discussing life to living it. At times he seems to be poking fun at the competitive antics of academics, and there are some digs at tycoons who indulge in philanthropy while remaining remorselessly hard-bitten. Yet there's also smart stuff about the compromises we make in relationships and the dangers of being all head and no heart.
…I wish I could say that The Hard Problem rises triumphantly to this hotly anticipated occasion. In truth, though, it's a bit of a disappointment. Hytner directs an elegant, incisive account of a piece that buzzes with complex ideas, passionately and wittily expressed, but which never quite exerts a strong enough grip as drama… the emotional life of the play feels somewhat under-nourished… As always with Stoppard, there is much to ponder but, apart from Hilary all the very well-acted characters feel two-dimensional, and the play hasn't transmuted its research into an emotionally satisfying whole – as Lucy Prebble did with The Effect, her play about brain chemistry, love and depression in this same theatre.
The Hard Problem runs at NT Dorfman until 27 May 2015