Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Hard Problem; Taken at Midnight

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Hard Problem; Taken at Midnight

Article excerpt

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. …

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