It has been the practice for a while now, for The National Theatre to offer play scripts at the same time as on-line booking. I suggest that with all modern plays, and particularly the plays of Tom Stoppard a reading of the play before going to a performance greatly enhances both enjoyment and understanding. I have found numerous times in the past that the super-acuity required to grasp the ideas, the literary, biblical, social and other references in a Tom Stoppard play without having done any “homework” is like taking a driving test blindfold, with an instructor simply saying “keep straight, turn left” etc. You know how to do these things, but not where you are doing them. Other theatres have now started to do the same thing, the script is available at the box office, The Royal Court does it and now The Theatre Royal in Haymarket. And obviously, one can buy volumes of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and others should one wish to.
But I have found, especially with modern plays that the ideas come too thick and fast to grasp unprepared in a single night, and obviously in an ideal world one would go again, and often! Ho! Hum! Frequently, not only would that be too expensive, but also the performance is likely to be completely sold out – only returns available, which is fine if you live near the theatre and have time to queue, not so easy if say, you are down for the day for a meeting and don’t have time to join a queue…
The new play, and the newly refurbished and renamed Dorfman Theatre (ex-Cottesloe) by Tom Stoppard is called The Hard Problem. We are in familiar Stoppardian territory here: the moral imperative – does it exist because of God or in spite of no-God. That is a vast simplification of course, but it is an idea that Tom Stoppard has examined before, for example in Jumpers, an earlier play first produced in 1972.
In Jumpers, George (a moral philosopher) is dictating the text for a lecture and is thinking aloud as to whether one can say “Is God?” or whether by saying that it predicates a belief that God exists in the same way as saying “does God exist?” The dictation and the thoughts ramble through several stages, but in practice George decides that people admit to a Creator to give authority to moral values, while at the same time admitting that moral values give point to the Creation. But in order to give credence to this fundamental position, one must first decide which came first – a Creator God or the moral choices which the goodness inspired by God makes possible?
In The Hard Problem, Hilary sort of believes in a God who will protect her daughter whom she has had adopted at birth, so all she knows is that somewhere in the world is a young girl, whom she named Catherine and she asks this God that she half believes in, to make sure Catherine is somewhere good, with parents who will love her. Hilary’s boyfriend Spike, who does not believe in anything, is trying to get Hilary to concentrate on getting herself engaged in a Brain Study Institute – so he is explaining to her the Prisoners’ Dilemma, which is an empirical study of what prisoners might do once arrested: to tell or not tell on the team, and whether the team mates will tell or not tell on him/her. And which outcome will achieve the better option – a shorter jail sentence…
You can see, this is all very complicated and as the play unfolds the various strands worm their way round and through each other until at the denouement we see completely laid out before our eyes, the playing out of the two very different and competitive strands. To do good altruistically or egotistically and why?
The speed with which the actors, all of whom are quite excellent, deliver their lines mirrors almost exactly the way Tom Stoppard speaks – very fast, with very deep thoughts and ideas chasing each other into the ether with astonishing multiplicity, often very wittily, always interesting and gone in a flash, on with the next idea…the same is true of the scene changes in this play. All the while a light show above fires and flashes to remind us that this is about the brain, the light-bulb moment or the synapses connecting to create new ideas. It is a quite brilliant play, a complex idea for the Hard Problem is trying to ascertain whether or not the brain activity correlates with consciousness, or whether the brain itself is conscious – how does consciousness come about?
Another play, also on in London at present, is Taken at Midnight by Mark Hayhurst and first produced at the Chichester Festival. Very different, but in its own way also about the moral imperative. Based on a true story, that of Hans Litten who in August 1932 subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to appear in court to answer for the brutality of four members of the SA (storm troopers), who had brutally attack and killed some people in a dance hall. Taken at Midnight describes the moment that Hans Litten (and thousands of others) were summarily taken into police protection on the night of the Reichstag fire. Because of the fiction that this was protection, there was no trial. But at least in Hans Litten’s case it was personal, and as a result he was beaten, ill-treated and under guard by the very group whose four members he had brought to justice under the Weimar Republic court.
Seen sometimes through Hans Litten’s (played by Martin Hutson) own experience and also through the eyes and experience of his mother, Irmgard (played by the incomparable Penelope Wilton) this play brings into the foreground a story that got buried in the aftermath of the truly inconceivable brutality of Nazi Germany. Hans Litten played his part even before the nature of Nazism became obvious, but he saw what it would become and did his best to show other people exactly what is would become. Alone in a witness box, Hitler was useless, pointless even laughable. His ideas, though, were poison.
Irmgard Litten, like so many mothers around the world at different times, struggled to get her son freed and in the end, when she finally understood exactly what it would take, she went to Dachau (Hans Litten’s final prison) to ask him to relent and he reminds her that at a very early age he had said to her “you have given birth to me mother, but it is my life now…” so she understands that he will not free himself at the expense of his principles.