Sunday, October 26, 2008
THEATRE REVIEW - A Disappearing Number
It's been quite a few years since I've seen a theatre work created by Theatre de Complicite, the company name now thankfully shortened to Complicite. The last time was The Street of Crocodiles revival at the Queens Theate in 1999, a production based on the life and stories of Bruno Shultz. Over the decades I believe I've seen five productions by them. I've taken many a friend to see them, confident they'll never let me down, producing each time entertaining, fascinating, experimental theatre of great beauty. This production centres on the work and creative relationship between a Cambridge Mathematics Don - G.H. Hardy, and an Indian Clark - Shrinivasa Ramanujan in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Hardy was the first Westerner to recognise Ramanujan as the unconventional genius of pure mathematics that he was. Interwoven into this is the contemporary love affair between a university lecturer in Mathematics, and Hardy/Ramanujan enthusiast and an Indian American futures salesman. A play about pioneering theoretical mathematics doesn't sound exactly like compulsive theatre, but Complicite bring their usual visual relish to it, finding visual ways to demonstrate Ramanujan's ideas, and make them imaginatively comprehensible.
Complicite productions frequently break new theatrical ground, with A Disappearing Number they explore what digital technology can bring to the theatrical experience. There are so many creative layers to this production, so many ways it engages us, not just intellectually, but also with the eye and the ear. They never become so self conscious of its art that their productions become cold, alienated and emotionally barren places. They seem to embrace the impossibility of their mission with an almost evangelical passion. Attempting to capture by clever cross cutting of time and sequence, via the simultaneous overlaying of different periods of experience, the brilliant essence of Ramanujan's ideas. Sometimes, as you see a scene acted out down stage, up stage you're also seeing the same scene played out in the background in a time delay, like a fuzzy memory. Through this inventive interplay, it becomes so much more than the telling of the tale of Hardy & Ramanujan's lives, It spins outward on the axis of its own universe to become a meditation on the possibilities of mathematics as art. The intrinsic beauty of its patterning and philosophy. Gives us a felt sense of what a numerical relationship can tell us about infinity, reality, human existence and our search for meaning through our virtual conceptual worlds and real relationships, all before death overcomes us.
Seeing the one performance only scratches the surface of what this hugely ambitious production has to offer. It so vividly captures how the world of pure mathematics, like that of pure physics, inevitable trespasses onto existential territory, to bridge the gap between the temporal sciences and those ineffable aspects of reality that we carelessly group under 'spiritual.' The closing lines of the play spoken by the character Aninda Rao to the recently bereaved Al Cooper, explain that Ramanujan's ideas about infinity mean that if time is continuous, and space is continuous then your never truly separated from anyone, or anything. All the main characters of the play are scattered across the stage, as though across human history,and are seen to be slowly tipping ash from the books they hold in their hands. This was such a melancholic image for a shared sense of impermanence, its beauty profoundly moved me. Brilliantly realised theatre, that rare mix of the heart and mind entranced, comes no better than this production.