Preparing for The Hard Problem with Tom Stoppard

by Carey Perloff

The grass, a shade of green unimaginable anywhere except on the British Isles, beckoned outside the window of Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary book-lined study in Dorset as we set off on two days of exhaustive work on his new play The Hard Problem, which we’re bringing to A.C.T. this fall.

Tom Stoppard and Carey Perloff
What continues to amaze me about Stoppard, with whom I have worked nearly a dozen times now, is his willingness to rewrite, reimagine, rethink, while always staying absolutely true to his own voice and his first instincts. Over a long weekend in Dorset, we went through every line of The Hard Problem, trying to tease out the balance of science and faith, intellect and instinct. I was wrestling with the character of Spike and what he actually felt for the protagonist, Hilary; Tom hilariously tried to explain to me the difference between a bed partner and a boyfriend, and argued for the obsessive love of science which seems to cloud the rest of Spike’s mind. But he was willing to dive into the Venice hotel room scene in the play and bracket a whole chunk of scientific argument, considering whether that excision would allow the warmth between the two of them to better emerge.

We talked about how to make it clearer that the global economy is in free fall by the end of the play, we spoke about hedge funds and brain science and altruism and whether goodness actually exists. He explained puns and jokes I might have missed, lamented that certain moments he was sure would be funny had turned out to be mystifying, and told me a beautiful story about how he had come up with the idea of Hilary’s “shame baby” and her grief about the adoption of her child.

Meanwhile we watched videos on my phone of the auditions I’d just held in New York, and he responded with pleasure to the sight of American actors taking on his play. We looked at preliminary set designs by Drew Boyce and mused about how “consciousness” might be represented visually. When we got exhausted, we went for walks across the Dorset meadows, up to a farm shop where Tom has befriended the proprietor. He bought fresh bread and begged her to re-order his favorite candy.

This is a man of nearly eighty years old who exists primarily on cigarettes, coffee, candy, and cookies, but retains a level of curiosity and engagement with the world that's hard to imagine in someone half his age. He is delighted that The Hard Problem will be on the Geary stage, one of his all-time favorite theaters, and is planning to take up residence in San Francisco for three weeks in October with his wonderful new wife Sabrina to participate in the rehearsal process.

As exhausting as it was to fly all that way for two days of work and then back to California, it was also a beautifully pure weekend, because Tom’s concentration is so acute. Since there was practically no internet access in the house and Tom wouldn’t use it even if there were, we weren’t distracted. We just talked. And talked. And talked. Outside, the birds chirped and the weather changed and the world got greener and greener in this little piece of heaven.

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