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

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

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.

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Show comments
  • JetHag

    Shame on you! There were no “Polish death camps,” only Polish victims! Even the Association of German Historians has condemned the use of this history-distorting terminology. Please do not conflate the perpetrators — Germans! — with the scene of their crimes.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      I doubt if anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of the Third Reich would fail to understand that Polish death camps means the notorious camps run by the Germans and located on what was then occupied Polish territory, and not camps run by Poles.
      But in its context here it is not much of a comparison either. The operating principle of these Polish camps or camps in Poland was not brutal detention but to kill people in very large numbers as quickly and efficiently as possible. A better comparison would have been the Mauthausen complex of camps where extermination through labour was practiced with great refinements of cruelty and brutality, but these camps were in Austria or the Ostmark of the Reich as it was then.

      • Eva S

        These camps were as much Polish as the Guantanamo prisons are Cuban.

    • Guest

      there were no “polish death camps”, but there certainly were polish collaborators, and not that few either

      • non-believer

        If you know the history, you would know about how the German ghettos for Jews worked and heard about different ‘Żagiew’ (“The Torch”) or the ‘Jewish Freedom Guard’ working for Gestapo or ‘Jüdische Ghetto-Polizei’.

        There were everywhere collaborators but you do not call the camps Jewish? So why call them Polish if 3 millions Polish Jews and 3 millions Polish Christians were killed there?

  • Wojciech Pisarski

    “Polish death camps”, followed by “no Hitler”. Is it not politically correct that the wartime atrocities should be attributed to the perpetrators – the Germans ?

  • Vuil

    Is there nothing that political correctness won’t infect?

    Now it is Tom Stoppard’s brain. Good thing those clever Indians and Chinese were about to bring us civilization hey Tom. None of this gratuitous nonsense of a white with a high IQ or a – gasp – white super wonk in the play.

    Or was it something much simpler. Old Tom wants to provide work for frustrated Chinese and Indian actors in Britain.

    Time for Tom to go off on another adventure to see whether there is an afterlife.

  • jimprzedzienkowski

    The term ‘Polish death camp’ is incorrect. The German Nazis established the ‘death camps’ on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

  • non-believer

    I heaven’t heard about any Polish death-camps. I heard about the German death camps where they exterminated prewar Polish citizens: 3 millions Polish Jews and 3 millions Christian Polish.

  • Unless ol’ Tom can talk meaningfully about Socrates, or Rousseau at a minimum — I don’t ask that he understand either one — I’m not really interested.

    This review is hilarious. a voice coach would greatly improve Calf’s American accent, which yearns to cross the Atlantic but never quite leaves Cornwall. Blimey! : )

  • Becky

    At the start the protagonist of The Hard Problem is a psychology student, not a philosophy student, and the Krohl Institute works on brain science, not artificial intelligence. If you’re going to write a review, it would help to pay a bit more attention to the details of the play.

  • jimprzedzienkowski

    The term ‘Polish death camps’ is incorrect. The German Nazis established the ‘death camps’ on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error

  • Eva S

    No such thing as “Polish camp” as Poland did NOT have any concentration camps or ghettos during WWII. These camps were GERMAN. Germany established thousands of camps in various occupied countries. Please remove this misleading and highly offensive term. Thanks in advance!!

  • jimprzedzienkowski

    The term ‘Poland’s death camps’ is incorrect. The German Nazis established the ‘death camps’ on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error

  • Marzenna Czubowicz

    Dear Mr. Evans, i was under the impression that journalists do their research better in the newspapers of The Spectator caliber, how wrong I was. I am rather surprise by the term Poland’s death camps, what do you mean by this term? They were German camps on Polish soil, Poland at the time was under German occupation! Please correct this very disturbing error.

  • JetHag

    There were no “Polish death camps,” but there were millions of Polish VICTIMS both inside and outside the German death camps in German-occupied Poland. Please make a correction and refrain from misinforming your readers.

  • Wojciech Pisarski

    The term “Polish death camps” is as correct as suggesting that Guantanamo Bay is a Cuban prison camp. The camps in war-time occupied Poland were in the first instance built by the Germans to imprison, torment and murder gentile members of the Polish intelligentsia and only after 1942 used to imprison and murder Polish Jews. Let’s remember that in total over 6 million Poles perished in the Holocaust half being gentiles. Please alter this inaccurate phrase to “German prison camps in German occupied Poland.