Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: A Disappearing Number, Barbican Centre

Review: A Disappearing Number, Barbican Centre

Written for Culture Wars, 30.09.2008

Watching Complicité at their best is akin to an out of body experience. Theirs is a theatre of ethereal fluidity and all-encompassing abstraction played without a single hair out of place. Hypnotic and vortex-like, you tumble into it headfirst, emerging in an audience of one where their performance and your ideas gently jostle together in hazy clarity.

Returning to the Barbican a year after its first run, A Disappearing Number retains this quality of theatrical cannabis, but in seeking loftier truths it loses sight of the concrete realities of human existence.

After an intriguing and increasingly obfuscated lecture on the nature of infinity, A Disappearing Number interweaves two fragmented narratives of relationships which have maths at their centre. As the lecture theatre’s walls disappear, leaving only the criss-cross of piping and a blackboard behind, Complicité’s stage becomes a space-time diagram charting the contemporary courtship of maths lecturer Ruth (Saskia Reeves) and American-Indian businessman Al (Firdous Bamji) alongside the work of Cambridge mathematician G H Hardy and his self-taught Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan during the First World War.

The beauty in all this is not so much in these narrative plots as in the concepts whizzing around them and their pitch-perfect, rhythmic realisation under Simon McBurney’s direction. Using video projections, we glide into firm locations – Hardy’s archaic study; bustling, chaotic Chennai; a ruffled hotel room – where suspended moments of history seem pristinely preserved in amber.

Yet McBurney also guides us further, into an intangible infinity of possibilities. Individual scenes, captured live on camera, form their own backdrop and linger into eternity; characters slip under a rotating blackboard into multiple versions of themselves; a single hall houses three spatially and temporally distant lectures; spoken numbers morph into overlapping, complex beat poems. All this conspires to dazzle the senses and confound perception; like a page dense with numbers it is blurred and woozy, nauseating and alluring.

What hits hardest is a sense of one’s own insignificance and the interconnectivity of everything – that the continuity of space and time link us inextricably to the past and the absent. The whole of history seems present through its absence, as if we are privy to a handful of slides in an endless collection or a few lose pages of a molten scrapbook of everything.

It is, perhaps, too rich in its design and too reliant on the awe and wonder of its concepts, but, for all its lack of emotional sway, A Disappearing Number might linger on into the future like Brook’s Mahabharata or Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon for its ambitious complexity and existential beauty.

Hardy once said that just as artists are makers of patterns, so too are mathematicians and that there is no place in the world for ugly mathematics. Complicité and McBurney have done him proud.

Photograph: Tristam Kenton

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