Thought that high school algebra class was pointless? Think again.
As you might have learned in Donald in Mathmagic Land, math is an integral part of our world that stretches far beyond the obvious confines into every aspect of life. Complicite’s production of Simon McBurney’s Olivier Award-winning play A Disappearing Number, currently showing at the Angelika Film Center as part of the National Theatre Live series, is just such an example of math’s ubiquitous presence in our world.
A play about two relationships nearly 100 years apart, A Disappearing Number also explores the greater relationship between art and math.
In 1914, noted Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy (David Annen) receives a strange correspondence from a penniless Brahmin from Southern India named Srinivasa Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu). The young Indian exhibits a mastery of mathematics unlike the professor has ever seen. Through a series of correspondences, Hardy convinces Ramanujan to leave India for England where they subsequently work together.
In present time, Ruth Minnen (Saskia Reeves) is a math professor at Brunell, near London. After a lecture one day, she is greeted by Al Cooper (Firdous Bamji), an American-born Indian, visiting the area for a business conference. After accidentally stumbling upon Ruth’s math class, Al is taken and ventures to introduce himself, tipping over the first domino en route to their eventual marriage and Ruth’s untimely death.
That is the linear telling of the story. However, McBurney creates his own beautifully balanced equation by intertwining the stories, ultimately creating an alternate, reality-bending dimension in which the action plays out.
He accomplishes this feat through the careful orchestration of each part of the production. The creative team of designer Michael Levine, lighting director Paul Anderson, sound director Christopher Shutt and projection designer Sven Ortel create a truly awe-inspiring set. Initially resembling the mundane front of a random university lecture hall, the audience soon discovers, via an introduction by Aninda Rao (Paul Bhattacharjee), that the space is quite dynamic. Of particular note is a swivel-mounted screen squarely in the middle of the set used to great effect.
If the production design is the bass clef of this orchestra, the script is the treble. Balancing both stories with deft skill, McBurney’s script nimbly jumps between stories and from transition to transition leaving no trace of drag. The words take on the cadence of a great fugue. Like the many indecipherable equations that populate the story, McBurney too starts with an improbable assumption and ends with an elegantly constructed solution. To see the storylines converge, a mathematic theme even referenced in the script, is quite impressive. No doubt is left as to why this play has been awarded on numerous occasions.
Though no one performance stands out above the rest, the cast as a complete ensemble is excellent. The script tends to serve up equal doses of comedy and drama, which the actors handle with relative ease. And Bhattacharjee, essentially serving as narrator and master of ceremonies for most of the production, navigates the ever-changing terrain well, always keeping the audience on balance with what’s going on.
Adding another dimension to this performance is the fact that it is pre-recorded and shown on screen at the Angelika.
Originally performed at Theatre Royal Plymouth as part of National Theatre Live, the mediated nature of the performance serves to both enhance and hinder the performance in ways. As with the National Theatre’s recent showing of Phédre on screen, A Disappearing Number is shot using three cameras. This requires an extra level of direction as the three angles are directed, compiled and edited for movie audiences.
In this transition, the director gains the ability to force the audiences focus, sometimes choosing to only show parts of the stage despite the fact that action is taking place elsewhere. In some instances, this adds to the quality of the performances. However, true theater buffs will be somewhat dismayed at the loss of being able to see the entire stage, and especially in some cases, the fluidity with which the stage transitions between settings. The end effect is likely minimal and really a matter of preference. Some will enjoy it more, some less. And still others will be indifferent. Overall, it doesn’t have as profound effect on the production as it did in Phédre.
Probably best viewed by theater lovers, A Disappearing Number is a great example of theater’s current movement towards a more avant-garde presentation. However, it is also an example of how this style of performance can be broadly accessible. Because at its very heart, this show is about the nature of relationships and the intrinsic interconnectedness of life, a theme to which everyone can relate.