My Heart Belongs to Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes

Tom Stoppard, Travesties (Director: Patrick Marber, Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue)

As I’m sure I’ve written before, I fell out of love with theatre thanks to Nottingham Playhouse’s patronising use of social realist dramas. My few returns to theatre, aside from Hobson’s Choice and Glen Garry Glen Ross, seem to have been Shakespeare. But there have been the odd Stoppard — the original production of Arcadia (I also saw Hapgood) and the Chichester revival of The Real Inspector Hound. I’d read Travesties thirty years ago, but I’d never seen it until now.

It’s a play that sort of demonstrates what we “know” about Stoppard. He cares more about ideas than people. He’s not a radical playwright. He’s too clever for his own good.

Certainly I overheard conversations in the interval and after the curtain in which audience members declared they didn’t understand it. “Great acting, great production, but I don’t think I understand it.”

Stoppard’s jumping off point is the fact that Lenin, Joyce and Tzara were all in Zurich in 1917. He presents these through the memories of the British Consul… the assistant British Consul… an assistant British Consul… Henry Carr, from about fifty years later. Carr is an unreliable narrator, which gets around the dates not quite working, the minor anachronisms. Joyce, in the middle of writing Ulysses, invites Carr to play Algie in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which led to lawsuits being exchanged between the two of them. Lenin, meanwhile, is waiting for revolution in Russia and trying to work out how to get across Germany to Petrograd. And Tzara, having just “invented” Dadaism, has fallen in love with Carr’s sister.

Each of the three great men are given chances to make speeches about their ideas and argue with Carr — the role of art, the role of the artist, the place of the the revolutionary, whether man can live on bread alone when he cannot live on art. I guess the confusion comes in when you try to work out where Stoppard stands, as a playwright who seems to be more about ideas than social change. Given some of his plays and television work about Czechoslovakia and the Soviet bloc, and an interview with him some thirty years ago, you’d assume his sympathies are not with Lenin. But then Stoppard asserted that he had to play fair and give Lenin some decent lines. And his major opponent is Carr, who pretty well emerges as a jerk. For that matter, I recall seeing some left wing playwrights who are similarly dialogic.

There is the glorious level of intertextuality — The Importance of Being Ernest, of course, although I thought there were more quotations, a few sequences that are indebted to the catechism chapter of Ulysses (which I probably didn’t catch in the 1980s) — as well as playing with limericks and poems, translations, and so forth. The start of the second half has a very clever (and rude) joke with Joyce dictating the ending of Ulysses. There are cut ups of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and sequences which break into song and dance. Sometimes, I fear, I cringed a little, but there’s a Brechtian playfulness that recurs.

There are a couple of other texts that haunt it — there’s the Orson Welles cuckoo clock speech from The Third Man which you’d think would be alluded to in a conversation about war, peace and Switzerland and the dress and make-up of sister Gwendolyn and librarian Cecily seem to anticipate the play with twins in Hapgood.

It might be the strength of the acting, but you do care for the characters. Tom Hollander plays Carr as old man and young, and his comic timing and height feel spot on. His opening speech, more or less, is a three page soliloquy, which is hitting the ground running after some added silent business. The actor playing the butler, Bennett, almost steals his scenes, with some radical comments I think have been added to the script since 1974. Cecily (Clare Foster) and Gwendolyn (Amy Morgan) have a thankless first half, but come into focus in the second. The play isn’t just about the men — although only the men are famous. Cecily teeters on the edge of feminist or political killjoy — Carr declares her a pedant — but this allows her to name the play. The original exchange between the two women was in verse, but here it is played in song (with Joyce on mandolin).

Of course, it is hard to understand on some levels — the need of art to be political or not to be art is not resolved, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. Because it isn’t resolvable.

Let’s end with one odd twist: Freddie Fox, of the Fox dynasty, is Tzara — initially Romanian, but quickly English as he shades into an The Importance of Being Ernest character. In 1974 he was played by John Hurt. I’m not sure I can quite imagine that.

The Stoppard Problem

To ask the hard question is simple:
Asked at a meeting
With the simple glance of acquaintance
To what these go
And how these do;
To ask the hard question is simple,
The simple act of the confused will.

The Hard Problem (2015; writer Tom Stoppard, director Nicholas Hytner, Dorfman Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, via cinema relay)

For weeks I thought that “the hard problem” was a quotation. But I’m pretty sure I was confusing it in my head with “the hard question”. The hard problem is the problem of consciousness — what is it, where does it comes from, can it be created?

Stoppard has always been a writer of ideas — the talk of chance and probability in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, all kinds of philosophy in Jumpers, the coincidence of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara in Zurich in 1915 in Travesties, quantum mechanics in Hapgood and chaos theory in Arcadia. The recurrent accusation — beyond being too clever for his own good — is that alongside the philosophising and the theatrical gymnastics, Stoppard forgets to have a heart. Well, The Real Thing should have put paid to that.

The Hard Problem is the first Stoppard play I’ve seen since Arcadia; wrong places, wrong times. It’s his first play in years and I don’t think, alas, it’s vintage.

Loughborough University student Hilary (Olivia Vinall) is seeking advice from her lecturer Spike (Damien Molony) as she is applying for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. He questions her notions of altruism and good and is on the egotism/selfish gene side of human behaviour, especially when she reveals she prays. She gets the job — over a better mathematician, Amal (Parth Thakerar), who goes on to work for the hedge fund run by Krohl (Anthony Calf) which funds the institute — and climbs the greasy pole of research with or without ethics.

In this play, Stoppard is like those fan wank writers who make you feel intelligent. You know, like that episode of Sherlock that invents an underground station so we can be smug about knowing about “The Great Rat of Sumatra” (some people just aren’t ready). The film that preceded the screening had Rufus Sewell telling us how he felt more intelligent when performing in Arcadia. Stoppard begins the play by having Spike explain the prisoner’s dilemma — to be fair, Hilary is bored with how pedestrian that is — and before you know it (well, half a dozen scenes later), Hilary is faced with a situation where she can protest her innocence or claim guilt. Just like a prisoner’s dilemma. Spike tells us that there is no such thing as coincidence — but Hilary runs into an old friend from school, runs into Amal’s girlfriend, runs into Spike in Venice.

Small world.

Still, we never note all those times that someone doesn’t ring us just as we’re thinking of them.

That reunion allows the revelation about Hilary’s past that might lead to a coincidence or not. There was an audible gasp in the audience when that finally panned out. Audiences can be slow.

The problem for me — beyond an age-old wishing for funnier comedies — is that the play was not really about consciousness in any interesting way. There’s a few speeches where we speculate whether human beings are more complicated thermostats…

It’s Daniel Dennett territory:

There is no magic moment in the transition from a simple thermostat to a system that really has an internal representation of the world around it. The thermostat has a minimally demanding representation of the world, fancier thermostats have more demanding representations of the world, fancier robots for helping around the house would have still more demanding representations of the world. Finally you reach us.

And we get a version of the Chinese Box problems, so Searle’s in the mix, too. And that thing about bats is a reference to Nagel.

But this is sleight of hand.

In Hapgood, Stoppard paired idea with theatrical metaphor by asking if a quantum physicist was a spy or a double agent — you could never tell until you looked. I had no sense that the problem of consciousness was being performed here. No moment when Hilary is deluded that she’s conscious, or can’t trust her sense data or is a thermostat.

Instead, the issue is altruism vs egotism — is the good deed still a good deed if it’s for personal gain? Why did that person bring Hilary a cup of coffee? How many times will Spike offer Hilary a lift home in hopes of sex before he gives up? The market that funds the institute is notoriously unpredictable even though the equations of chaos have had a go, and I’m not clear when the play is meant to be set so we don’t have the spectre of 2008 to negotiate. Krohl is ruthless and the game is rigged in his favour — but he also seems a reasonable father. Is his institute altruism or egotism?

But Stoppard has here not worked hard enough to dramatise the speeches, with many scenes as two handers, and doesn’t seem to have the social comedy skills of Ayckbourn anymore to make some of the human interactions painfully, squirmingly funny. The game seems rigged in favour of Hilary — for the female characters in general — and against Spike. Vinall may be the better actor than Molony perhaps, as he is called upon to be eye candy and has a bit of a wandering accent.

And yet — and this is difficult to give full weight to without straying into spoiler territory — a small gesture toward Hilary at the end of the play (which tips the scales to altruism) is genuinely moving. There is a time for altruism and a time for egotism, or they are the same thing, plus time, but I’m not convinced we get any closer to solving the hard problem that way.