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A CurtainUp London Review
A Disappearing Number
Esoteric mathematics would not seem to offer an immediately involving topic for a play. However, in the hands of Complicite, a potentially dry subject is turned into an emotionally moving and aesthetically stunning production. With their customary imaginative force, Simon McBurney and his company create a play which is more a sensory experience or art installation than a straight drama. With cleverly interwoven narrative threads, abstract ideas and personal stories are seamlessly juxtaposed.
Much of the play concentrates on that rare occurrence: a romantic, biographical history of two mathematicians. First, there is an untrained Hindu clerk who turned out to be a mathematical visionary, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu). Second, there is a Cambridge mathematician who brought him to the attention of the western world, GH Hardy (David Annen). This story is looked at by and in tandem with that of a modern day couple: Ruth, a Brunel maths lecturer (Saskia Reeves) and Al, an American futures dealer (Firdous Bamji). However, to give a distillation of the synopsis in this way is an unfairly simplistic representation of a production which is far more about inspired atmosphere and dreamlike sequences than spoken lines and plot developments. Fragmentary, accumulative scenes gradually build up a sense of the characters and their personal stories. Meanwhile, East and West collaboration and tension, personal and academic lives, private tragedies and worldwide war are all explored within a framework of mathematical ideas.
With clever tricks of lighting and projected images, multimedia is exploited to the full. However, it never seems gimmicky or superfluous and the images and sequences always appear integral to the play. With detailed ingenuity and overall brilliance, Complicite effortlessly recreate crowded street scenes in Mumbai, the peaceful, spiritually resonant river Kaveri, a Cambridge college during the First World War complete with dining hall and library as well as modern day airports and flights. The wholeness with which these diverse scenes are recreated is quite simply breathtaking.
As outsized, projected numbers float across the stage among the cast's activity, there is a sense that mathematics provides an abstract (although ultimately explanatory) framework for the physical and human world. Although people and numbers interact, there is an almost hypnotic portrayal of the beauty of the incomprehensible. With an aesthetic flair similar to Robert Lepage, this production is elliptical and mesmerising, full of understated, unpretentious and poignant emotion. Moreover, in spite of being about maths, the play is not at all didactic, but rather provocative and explorative. In fact, it is a concept which GH Hardy would have thoroughly approved of: mathematics as a creative art.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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