Lloyd Evans

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem review: too clever by half

Plus: at the Haymarket, Taken by Midnight feeds the Hitler myth, while trying to debunk it

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem review: too clever by half
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The Hard Problem

Dorfman, in rep until 27 May

Taken at Midnight

Haymarket, until 14 March

Big event. A new play from Sir Tom. And he tackles one of philosophy’s oldest and crunchiest issues, which varsity thinkers call ‘the hard problem’. How is it that a wrinkled three-pound blancmange sitting at the top of the spinal cord can generate abstract thoughts of almost limitless complexity? In real life Sir Tom is said to have such a flair for philosophical chitchat that he can fire off searching observations about Descartes, mind-body dualism, the nature of immateriality, being and non-being, the ‘cogito’ and so on, until those around him have slithered into a coma. Which is not rude of them. It’s perfectly acceptable to pass out during an ontological discussion because it means that one has occupied the mid-line between existence and non-existence and is therefore endorsing both sides of the argument at once. Without interrupting the speaker either. That’s appropriate here because this show feels like a conversation between the playwright and himself.

He starts with a sexy philosophy student solemnly kneeling to say her bedtime prayers while being mocked by her bullishly agnostic boyfriend. She applies for a job at an American-backed corporation, the Krohl Institute, which investigates artificial intelligence. Every employee, like Sir Tom, has an astounding knack for high-level discussions about robotic consciousness and the boundaries between spirit and matter. They stroll around the office casually asking each other whether, for example, a thermostat has a mind given that it detects and responds intelligently to changes in temperature.

The dialogue is flashily impressive but it leaves one panting with admiration rather than glowing with recognition or inner understanding. This is a play that tells you, many times, how brainy professional brain-boxes can be. The plot, meanwhile, about the destiny of an adopted teenager, lacks the muscle and vibrancy to keep us watching or guessing.

Sir Tom gives an approving nod to multiculturalism with his cosily progressive cast. There’s a lesbian couple, a brilliant Irish metaphysician, an Indian super-wonk and a Chinese stunnah whose IQ, at well over 200, is nearly half the size of Sir Tom’s. The only passionate figure is a tantrum-prone American hedge-fund goblin played, with spuming indignation, by Anthony Calf. A quiet hour with a voice coach would greatly improve Calf’s American accent, which yearns to cross the Atlantic but never quite leaves Cornwall. Critics of Sir Tom love to assail his aridity and emotional detachment. The scolds will have a field day here.

Taken at Midnight is an amplification of a BBC drama, The Man Who Crossed Hitler, which tells the story of Hans Litten, a Jewish lawyer, who in 1931 called Hitler as a witness in the trial of four stormtroopers accused of murder. Litten’s witty and contemptuous cross-examination revealed the Nazi boss as a cheesy little sly-boots who claimed that the Brownshirts were merely a sports club. Berliners, said Hitler, tossed flowers at them as they marched through the capital. Litten: ‘With the flowerpots still attached, I believe.’

This mocking performance earned Litten a beating and a cell in Dachau as soon as the Nazis assumed power. The play follows the efforts of his mum, Irmgard, to spring him from jail. Visually this is a knockout show. Robert Jones and Tim Mitchell have thrust a great wedge-shaped backdrop across the stage and illuminated it with simmering gothic cones of parchment-yellow light. It’s a setting fit for Robert Plant or Richard Wagner.

The characterisation doesn’t match the show’s optical riches. Penelope Wilton’s Irmgard is tremulously angst-stricken. But that’s about it. There’s a deviously charming SS man (John Light, having fun), who disguises his hindrances as help. A bumbling British toff (David Yelland, barely stretched) proves just as ineffectual. Litten’s fellow captives go to their deaths merrily insulting their Nazi tormentors. One difficulty is that Litten’s treatment, in the 1930s, is far milder than the horrors inflicted later in the Polish death-camps. This isn’t an artistic failing but it diminishes his ordeal and therefore our sympathy. And Hitler is absent.

The play’s key moment, the courtroom interrogation, is delayed until the end when it occurs as a dream in the mind of the starved and brutalised Litten. The insouciant air of fleet-footed mockery that entertained the jury has vanished and instead Litten screeches out his lines in fury at an unseen Hitler whose replies are intoned, over a booming Tannoy, by lovely Roger Allam at his plummiest. Bit of a snag. We don’t see Hitler squirm, or falter, or look ridiculous. And the point of the play, presumably, is to shrink the 20th century’s greatest myth into an ordinary mortal, a man of trivial dimensions, a daft little twerp from Hicksville who entertained a lot of dim, deluded ideas. Instead this show seems to feed the legend. I’m sure it doesn’t mean to.