July 26, 2008
Complex Drama By Numbers
By BILL STONE
Theatre WriterNEXT month the world-renowned company Complicite returns to the Theatre Royal with their latest production, A Disappearing Number.
This tale has two interwoven strands - one an historical snapsnot of the relationship between a Cambridge professor and an Indian mathematician, the other a fictitious love affair between a futures dealer and a lecturer excitedly passing on mathematical discoveries to her pupils - which can be enjoyed on many levels.
But anyone with a special interest in how theatre is made, and who saw the first staging of the play in Plymouth in March 2007, will be intrigued to see how the production has developed into its present form.
Complicite was founded as a collective in 1983 by, among others, Simon McBurney, who has emerged as their director and leader. Before the very first public showing of the piece here last year, he addressed the audience to explain it was a work in progress, presented without dress or technical rehearsal, and would be subject to further development before it opened at London's Barbican in September. The company's practice of creating its shows through intensive improvisation and workshopping of ideas, synthesising text, movement and highly imaginative staging techniques, has placed them among the pioneers of multi-media theatre.
The Indian genius on whom the real life section of the narrative hangs was the self taught Brahmin Srinivasa Ramanujan. Working in Madras, this 26-year-old clerk sent to the Cambridge professor G H Hardy pages of formulae and calculations on prime numbers. To the even well versed person it would have seemed gibberish, but Hardy recognised the importance of Ramanujan's conclusions. He eventually persuaded the Indian to come to Trinity College, where for a few years in the early 20th century they worked together on the ground breaking mathematical discoveries. Sadly, English weather and food took their toll, and Ramanujan died aged 32.
But their work, and that subsequently built on it, forms the foundation of much pretty well taken for granted nowadays, (like his work on infinite series, and foreshadowing string theory to explain the universe) and resolves many mathematical, metaphysical and scientific problems. The effect of their collaboration has extended into other spheres, too, with Stephen Fry having been spurred into making a movie, and David Leavitt writing a novel, The Indian Clerk.
The parallel story concerns Ruth, an avid follower and promoter of Ramanujan's discoveries, and her courtship by Al, which also ends prematurely when she dies of an aneurysm.
The production was heaped with praise in London and on its subsequent foreign tour, garnering a number of awards. But not all critics were bowled over by what they saw. It was referred to as "over-stylised", "conceited", "portentous" and "cryptic". I suspect these reactions may have been prompted by a sense of confusion and frustration at being unable to understand the mathematics which form so great a part of the play - I recall when I reviewed the first, raw performance I was frequently baffled, but found it an unforgettable experience, a serious but comic exposition of trenchant ideas and themes presented in a multi-media display of fireworks. I can hardly wait to see it in its present form. It may still prove a tough nut to crack with its pure maths complexities, but theatrically it's going to be unmissable. But it is only here at the Theatre Royal for three days, from August 7 to 9.
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