A Disappearing Number – Novello Theatre, London

Mimi ON Sep 22, 2010 AT 10:51 am

A Disappearing Number...

by Nadia Beaumont.

Maths mixes with visual spectacle to capture the essence of true beauty in Simon McBurney’s latest offering for Complicite at the Novello Theatre.

This is a love story turned mathematics lecture and gives even the most cynical mathematician a real view into not only the beauty of numbers, but the significance of coming to accept the loss of a loved one. If you have previously been stunned by McBurney’s work as artistic director at Complicite then you will be aware of the main theme that runs through their work which is that everything changes. No one show is the same and this is certainly true for A Disappearing Number.

The story is split. Firstly we follow a growing relationship between a maths lecturer, Ruth Minnen, whose eccentricity is excellently executed by Saskia Reeves and Al Cooper, an American who after her death follows her love of mathematics, inadvertantly learning about himself at the same time. We are then led to follow a pair of mathematicians, G.H.Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the work of the latter was an obsession of Ruth’s and the mathematical message is therefore carried through.

There are tricky theories in maths to be explored – but don’t be put off as the staging is a spectacle and will provide diversion for even the least mathematically minded. The stage consists of three big teachers’  boards set in a lecture hall where projections of landscapes of India are frequently flashed up giving the audience a unique taste of India. At just one push these are thrust upwards to expose a large space behind which there are more projections and the more physical split scenes of past and present are shown.

The actors really use the stage, in some cases the same props are used to show different times. This helps emphasise the main message, that infinity is looped. Much of the speech is repeated and slowly unravels the meaning of the play as it unfolds. A separate board comes into play creating movement between the front and back of the stage and allowing the actors to create some quite stunning silhouettes.

Among this strong cast, Hiren Chate the Tabala player stands out – Tabala is a classic Indian instrument which brings huge authenticity to the piece. This, alongside the outbreak of Indian dancing and singing (which I later found out is to the ‘beat’, a way of playing the drums in India) truly illuminates exactly what is so good about this piece – the mixture of culture and love which sets the heart alight.

On a more critical note this is too long a performance at just under two hours to go without an interval – numb nether regions distracted from the action on-stage and even though I didn’t want to lose focus I couldn’t help it as much of the action is repetition. I can understand that in a piece such as this, there is no opportune moment for a natural break but it would have helped the audience somewhat.

Although ‘it may be hard to define mathematical beauty’, McBurney and the Complicite team manage to truly create beauty in front of our very eyes. I came away feeling more at ease with my own understanding of life and infinity and this provided a comfort which was lacking in the seating! I would advise anyone who wants a very visual experience that will stay with them, to take a trip to the warped world of Complicite, just remember to take a cushion.

A Disappearing Number is on until 25th September at the Novello Theatre, London. Photograph of Saskia Reeves as Ruth Minnen copyright of Stephanie Berger.
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