Friday, 17 April 2015

The Hard Problem

We went last night to the ScotiaBank Theatre to see the broadcast through NTLive of Tom Stoppard's new play "The Hard Problem". There is to be an encore of the broadcast on May 16. If you are in Vancouver then I strongly recommend you go see it.

Stoppard is an extraordinary playwright. Just listening to his dialogue makes me feel more intelligent than I am. His newest play is a continuation of a fine body of work which I have greatly enjoyed over the years - including "Shakespeare in Love" one of those DVDs we not only own but watch again with great pleasure.

"The Hard Problem" is all about consciousness. Can machines think? We are getting ever more information about how our brains work, but we still do not have any explanations for altruism. Our understanding of society - and especially how markets work - is based on the philosophical premise that investors are both intelligent and self interested and that their decisions make for arrangements that are somehow optimal. But markets are fundamentally irrational. My investment advisor often talks about "market sentiment". It is not all about rates of return on capital employed.

Now that computers have become so fast and cheap, we can do calculations of the utmost complexity very rapidly. But we have not become very much better at understanding human behaviour, and are still really bad at risk assessment and forecasting. We really have a hard time coping with coincidence and how that is not the same thing as causation: we still think in terms of fate and fortune.

"The Hard Problem" is clever and witty as an intricate as a Swiss watch. It is a delightful experience.

I wish I could say the same thing about watching NTLive. We have done this now, several times, at both the ScotiaBank theatre and Riverport in Richmond. First, know that you need to get there early. There are a lot of people of my generation who like these things and who like to save the best seats for their friends. If you want seats in the middle of the back, Good Luck!

Secondly the show starts with a warning about the somewhat less than perfect technology in use. I wonder about this. The show is not actually "live". 7pm here is 3am there! It is "captured live" but still broadcast. Every time we have seen a performance, it has broken up and usually in the middle of the third act at some critical moment. The picture breaks into blocks and sound stutters or is lost entirely, and when after a brief pause things go back to normal the action has moved on. There is no rewind! That perhaps matters less in Hamlet than a new play but both are annoying. Maybe this happens to frustrate surreptitious illegal copying?

Thirdly, the people who work at theatres are usually very young and inexperienced. Last night they left the overly bright lights on that they use when cleaning the auditorium. This could well have been so that the aged patrons could find their seats and read the programmes. But these lights were dazzling me well into the beginning of the play itself. The house lights did not come on at the end, and people were stumbling in the dark to get out. This play is 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, and many were acting under some urgency.

On one occasion, the theatre staff at Richmond appeared to have forgotten to switch on the broadcast until the play was well underway, and at that performance we were given complimentary passes for a future show. That did not happen last night, nor need it have. But it would be nice to know that someone is actually paying attention which I understand is not always easy in a multiplex.  

We did pick up a flyer for Front Row Centre Events which includes a a Van Gogh exhibit from Amsterdam and live broadcasts from the Met. So I think it is probable that we will continue to patronise these less than perfect experiences.

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