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January 14, 2016


I saw the Hard Problem at the National (on their smaller, more "experimental" stage, which was a clue since Stoppard normally plays in large, expensive venues). I think I've been to every Stoppard opening run since the 70s, with the exception of his Coast of Utopia trilogy, and I thought it was pretty poor by his standards. I am normally such an admirer that I went alone - a first solo theater (as opposed to film) outing for me. I got into a discussion with strangers in an elevator afterwards, and I said that I thought the characterisation was exceptionally poor. They said that Stoppard himself says that his characters are often stereotypes. What I should have said, I realised afterwards (l'esprit de l'escalier in action), is that in the Hard Problem they aren't just stereotypes, they are ciphers, just mouthpieces for different sides of a problem that interests Stoppard.

I felt this particularly because it is an area that I have myself been very interested in, and have in part seen treated with far more depth elsewhere, often but not exclusively by neurologists, and sometimes in theatre (e.g. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=tmZL8MOf2KIC&pg=PA61&lpg=PA61&dq=on+identity+mick+gordon&source=bl&ots=Wl54kHycbO&sig=ks7Jzyva4JNFEiCT-Gv-nMQJvao&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiPhqLEy6nKAhUBKA8KHbkWBOEQ6AEIMjAD#v=onepage&q=on%20identity%20mick%20gordon&f=false) (sorry about the length of that link, I don't know how to do short, elegant links).

I think the difference between the London reactions and yours must be the cast, and the musician. For example, I saw Arcadia when it first opened in 1993 , and thought it wonderful, and right up the alley of one of my best friends in LA. I had known her since childhood, we shared many interests and could always predict each other's reactions, but by the time it got to California, after several cast changes, she was astonished I thought it worth seeing.

Casting does make a huge difference (in theater and in film).

It's kind of ironic, since a lot of directors and playwrights tend (among themselves) to refer to actors as "meat puppets." Even when they are going to great lengths to get exactly the right actor for a part.


I'm glad to hear from someone who saw the London production. Did the woman-ness of the play not strike you as it did me? This *is* a new development for Stoppard, isn't it?

The Wilma frequently does Stoppard -- they did R&G last spring, just after Hamlet (and with an overlapping cast), and it was *great*. I think the combination of familiarity with each other, plus familiarity with the playwright, helped them workshop the play into something a *lot* better than what you saw in London.

GFTNC: <a href="www.whatever.com">label for whatever</a>

In London, Hilary was played by Olivia Vinall, who may be too shockingly pretty and young-looking to convince an audience that her mind is her strong point.

This may be an honest assessment of commonly-held POVs, but it's a rather frustrating one.

NV, here goes: http://oberonbooks.com/oberon-masters-1/theatre-and-the-mind> Mick Gordon book

Hmm, I obviously did that wrong, I think I forgot the quotation marks, I'll try again

Mick Gordon book

Excellent! Many thanks, NV.

Doc, I will answer your question shortly.

That looks like your link may have had some HTML code in it. You need just the barebone URL in the hypertext reference (href="") field.

You need to do:

<a href="http://oberonbooks.com/oberon-masters-1/theatre-and-the-mind">Mick Gordon book</a>

Which should end up looking like:

Mick Gordon book

I have heard from several people who felt the casting of Olivia Vinall posed a challenge to the meaning of the play in London. Last night a director told me me he felt the production presented her as a "siren, whom all the other characters wanted to sleep with," which certainly undercuts the possibility that her mind (or,considering the play's arguments, her soul) was what attracts them to her. (Full disclosure: I worked on the Wilma production.)

OK Doc, here goes. I think it may be that the problem in London, as possibly indicated by the stage at which the National showed it, was that it may have been a kind of "soft opening", so maybe not adequately rehearsed, or even still being worked on. In fact, it is even possible that Stoppard went on working on it after the brief run in London. On the other hand, now I think of it, it was directed by Nicholas Hytner, one of our most acclaimed directors, as his last production as Artistic Director of the National Theater, so the foregoing theories seem unlikely. Maybe it was just a "lesser Stoppard" after all, and your Wilma production supplied the missing pieces by giving the characters a hinterland by means other than language.

But, to your very interesting question about the woman-ness. In the London production, they really didn't seem like real women, or real people at all. They seemed to have been supplied with just sufficient attributes, characteristics and interests to nominally carry the plot developments, or to mouth the intellectual arguments, only to the very barest extent. I don't know exactly how else to put this, but none of the characters, including the women, rang true as people. It was deeply unsatisfying.

Now, to what I think is your question about whether creating substantial women characters is a new thing for Stoppard (unless you mean in numbers sufficient to hang out, Bechdel-testwise?). I am ashamed to say that in my youth, when I was first going to plays like Travesties and Jumpers, I was sufficiently a sufferer from "false consciousness" not to notice whether the female characters were plentiful enough, or given sufficient authorial attention (no longer, happily. I agreed with you about Rey in Star Wars). But by Arcadia, which many consider Stoppard's masterpiece, see this, he was creating wonderful female characters, particularly Thomasina, who is probably based on Ada Lovelace. All I can say is, if you haven't seen Arcadia, and Wilma does it well in the future, you are in for a treat.


Aha, Mick Gordon has scooped me! Because the idea, that "theater represents a physical corollary of the invisible workings of our minds", is something I thought of as I was pondering "The Hard Problem" and working on this review! e-book is being purchased forthwith.

Walter B.: you may want to put this on your reading list, if you haven't read it already.

Yes, centering on women is very much a new thing for Stoppard. There have been isolated moments back to like Cahout's Macbeth where plays felt like they might go in that direction, but they never did. I'm now hoping to get to see this somehow.

Doc, just one further note of something you may find interesting. After seeing one of Mick Gordon's plays (I think it was On Ego) in which he had collaborated with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, I bought Broks's book Into the Silent Land. (In fact, my first comment on ObWi was to recommend it, in your thread about Oliver Sacks's announcement of his own diagnosis). While recognisably in a genre invented by Sacks, I think it is a really good book, and well worth anybody's attention who is interested in these matters.

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