(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/28.)
Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem opens on 21 January. Michael Billington, who first reviewed him in 1966, salutes a playwright who, at his best, achieves a perfect balance of intellect and emotion
How does consciousness come about? Is our identity the product of what Francis Crick calls “a vast assembly of nerve cells”? And how much is human behaviour the product of egoism or altruism? Although there is almost too much to take in at a single 100-minute sitting, the competing arguments always have a strong emotional underpinning.
Stoppard starts with the advantage of a vibrant central character, Hilary, who when we first meet her is a psychology student at Loughborough university. Having got a coveted research post at a swanky brain science institute, she is free to conduct experiments on adult motivation and to sanction others on child behaviour patterns. But Hilary herself is unusual in many ways: she has a hidden longing for the child she bore when she was 15 and gave up for adoption, and she prays to God, to the evident scorn of the brilliant scientific minds that surround her.