Much of The Hard Problem takes place in a neuroscience institute. “When I first read the play,” said Adelaide Clemens, who plays Hilary, the central character, “I thought: oh my God, there’s so much jargon.” Talking before a performance the other night, Clemens added: “But as I got deeper into the story, I thought: this isn’t so much about neuroscience. It’s about a woman who needs to believe in God. Otherwise, she won’t be able to forgive herself for what’s happened.”
Even as Clemens started to explore the emotional side of Hilary – the guilt, the regret, the need for absolution – she did not want to neglect the intellectual side of preparing for the role. “I listened to almost every philosophy podcast,” she explained. “What everyone is talking about right now is the bigger picture. It’s not about Trump or Brexit but about what we are losing. We’re losing connection. We’re becoming more and more isolated. A lot of these themes are in the play if you look for them.”
Once she gleaned the story’s philosophical background, Clemens entered the rehearsals. “All the nitty-gritty was during that time,” she said. “I say to the other actors in the women’s dressing room, “All the work was really in the rehearsals. Now it’s a matter of keeping fit enough to do it every night. For me that means a good vocal warm-up and getting enough sleep.”
When asked how her performance has evolved, Clemens pointed not to the specific but to the general: “I don’t do it the same every night. I bring what’s going on with me into the play.”
As for the audiences, Clemens commented: “As we near the end of the run I think that people are seeing the larger issues involved in the story. They’re seeing the ‘meta’ of it, if that’s the right word. When I talk now to friends who’ve come to see the play, they are more likely to speak about the theme of altruism vs. egoism, which is at the heart of the experiment that Hilary conducts at the institute.”
That institute’s scientists are a diverse lot, and Clemens’s own background is also varied. She was born in Brisbane, and spent her early childhood in the south of France and in Hong Kong. In the latter location, she attended a British international school. This is why, she said, “up until I was 12 I had a British accent.”
Her family moved to Sydney, where Clemens developed her interest in theater. “I did school plays, and every year I did the Shakespeare competition, where you take a scene and adapt it.”
One of her teachers, who worked as a professional actor, helped Clemens get an agent when she was 14. She got her first job soon after. “No one in my family is in show business, so I was doing something fun but new.” She did “Love My Way,” a well-received TV show in Australia, and moved to Los Angeles, where she did independent films, some of them of the horror persuasion.
During this period, Clemens read a TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novels Parade’s End. “I went crazy for the character of Valentine. I really fought for that role. I flew myself to London, and dressed myself up in period costume for the reading, which the costume designer thought was a little weird.” At that reading she met Tom Stoppard, author of the Parade’s End adaptation and of The Hard Problem.
“Before he arrived at the reading, they kept talking about someone called Tom. I thought he was the assistant cameraman or something. That was quite a surprise. But a surprise that led to a terrific role in ‘Parade’s End’ and now to this play.”
Clemens acknowledged that the language in Stoppard’s work can seem a bit dense and daunting at first. “But once you rehearse and make the language second-nature you are free to work on the emotional side of the story. Tom gives his characters a big emotional journey to play, as well as the ideas to make us think. That combination is why his work hits us so powerfully and why it gives actors like me so much to work with.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com