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Chemical connection: Olivia Vinall and Damien Molony in "The Hard Problem" (Johann Persson)

Staging a drama entitled The Hard Problem must be the sum of any theatre marketing department's nightmares. Fortunately for the National Theatre, this one was written by Tom Stoppard and would have sold out even if Sir Tom had named it after the HMRC tax code. It is the first play since the writer once dubbed "a one-man education centre" delivered Rock 'n' Roll, about the tergiversations of Czech intellectuals, nine years ago and a valedictory for Sir Nicholas Hytner as artistic boss of the National. This Sir-heavy production lives up to that billing: elegant and high-minded.

Like most of the really difficult puzzles of philosophy, the "hard problem" of how our consciousness can be explained is simple but defeating. Given that we are trapped inside it, philosophers from John Locke to Thomas Nagel have wondered how we might escape the "veil of perception" or discover what it is like to be a bat (Nagel thought we never would, so bats can keep their mysteries to themselves). Recent advances in biochemistry and understanding of the brain have given ammunition to scientific materialists, arguing that consciousness is nothing more than a dizzy map of chemically-enabled connections which light up when driven by stimuli or evolutionary demands, like a giant Tube map. Stoppard sets out to challenge them.

A heady mix of philosophy, science and faith is funnelled into Stoppard's play, set in up-market academia. Hilary (a lithe Olivia Vinall) starts out at as a psychology student at Loughborough, falling intermittently for Spike, a know-it-all tutor who thinks that the mind is just "pounds of grey matter" and paintings of Madonna and Child should be renamed "woman maximising gene survival". This patchy affair is a vehicle for vintage Stoppardesque quips: "You can't sleep with me: I'm your pupil," teases Hilary. "That would be unheard of in the history of higher education," replies Spike.

Hilary escapes to a starry research institute funded by Jerry Krohl, a central-casting hedgefunder who says annoying things like "the name's on the building". In the world of expensive limewashed panelling and ergonomic desks, Hilary meets Bo, a Chinese researcher (Vera Chok) , who develops a crush on her and skews some of her mentor's research to help Hilary make the case for inherent goodness in humans. If this sounds like a series of PPE lectures, with a thin veneer of drama, that is largely because it is. Everyone is in love with everyone else—and a mini-Greek contrivance of the plot about an adopted child turning up in   a "one in a trillion chance" is a stretch. Somehow, though, the old Stoppard magic shines through, because he cares enough about scientific materialism to interrogate where it might lead and why it makes us feel enlightened and uneasy at the same time. This may not be his best work, for the same reason that Woody Allen's later films are not as good as Annie Hall or Shakepeare's late-life writing does not sparkle as much as his earlier output. Hilary cannot win her arguments against the Richard Dawkins tendency. But The Hard Problem is still ingenious, intellectually demanding theatre.

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