A Disappearing Number

Posted on: 07 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Mathematics, music and emotions mix to make a fascinating and inventive theatre piece.

Take a series of mathematical puzzles, add a moving human interest story and mix with an element of music and dance and the result is Complicite’s inspiring, baffling but hugely inventive production A Disappearing Number, conceived and directed by Simon McBurney.

Taking as its starting point one of the most mysterious and romantic collaborations of all time, the play tells a story about connections between ideas, cultures and times.

In London a man attempts to unravel the secrets of his lover.  In Bangalore a woman collapses on a train.  In Cambridge in 1914 Englishman GH Hardy seeks to comprehend the ideas of Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan.

It is this latter story however that provides the main focus of the play.  In 1912-13 Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young clerk from South India and a passionate, largely self-taught mathematician wrote to the eminent Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy with conjectures about numbers in general and prime numbers in particular.  Hardy spotted Ramanujan’s genius and invited him to Cambridge.  Ramanujan’s subsequent stay was not without problems; he suffered from loneliness, unfamiliar food and the cold.

McBurney and Complicite skilfully interweave this dramatic human tale with the voyage of mathematical discovery on which the two men embarked and combine this with the present day attempt by a woman in her forties to explore mathematics.

This is a play which manages to enact the feeling of doing mathematics, the fascination of puzzling out intricate patterns and the excitement of fitting ideas together and wrapping it all up in a physical and emotional drama.

It would have been very easy for the production to appear artificial and contrived but McBurney creates a strong sense of realism by the use of imaginative back projection, silhouettes and film, for example a train journey through India is so authentically conveyed with a minimum of props that you can almost feel the landscape whizzing by.

Furthermore the members of Complicite manage to bring the characters they portray fully to life.

So if you always thought mathematics was a boring subject, think again, for as Complicite prove, ‘mathematics are helping to form a unified vision of the universe’ and its importance should not be underestimated.

Laurence Green

At the Barbican Theatre until 1st November 2008 then on tour.

Booking Information

Complicite theatre company: www.complicite.org

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