A Disappearing Number

Simon McBurney
Barbican Theatre

Production photo

With avant garde multimedia works such as Mnemonic, The Noise of Time and The Elephant Vanishes, Complicite have carved out a niche for themselves in an artistic zone that they share with the likes of Robert Lepage, Dmitri Shostakovich and Peter Greenaway; with Katie Mitchell knocking at the door.

Complicite regularly come up with unusual productions, visually exciting and addressing diverse issues from fresh perspectives.

Mathematical theorems are certainly not a common subject for theatrical presentation and yet this multimedia event, conceived and devised by the company's moving force Simon McBurney, looks at a single sequence of numbers.

You may well not know that a series of numbers from 1/2/3/4/5 to infinity is equal to -1/12. In two hours, the company may not prove this to a layman but they show how obsessive mathematicians can become in their efforts to take "beautiful numbers" and prove something with them.

Unlike David Auburn in Proof, here McBurney actually offers a bit of a maths lesson. At the start, Saskia Reeves runs numbers across white and blackboards rather like a bespectacled Carol Vorderman, raised to the power of 1,000.

This is a game to worry an audience who will then be inordinately relieved when it turns out that there is more to this show than numbers. Indeed, the (literal) anorak observing her is occupied by an American guy, Al Cooper, who is more interested in hitting on the teacher than learning from her.

The play then moves on to address a couple of mathematicians' stories, slices them up and puts them together into what at times feels almost like a thriller.

In the period around the First World War, a mathematician at Cambridge, FH Hardy received a jumble of numbers from a barely educated Madras Brahmin, Srinivasa Ramanujan. This purported to prove the -1/12 theorem and, much to the surprise of the establishment, did so.

This was to have a deep significance that ultimately appeared to provide a step towards a Unified Theory of the Universe. Enough Science! you might well be crying.

That story is cut into another, set today, about the strained love between our anorak, the Anglo-Indian from Baltimore Al, and the latter-day mathematician Ruth, played by Miss Reeves.

The inter-relationships go wider than the two periods as we also get oblique commentary on the societies of East and West. The Indian genius, hailed as a second Newton, gives up his culture for numbers and Cambridge, while the British lady makes a pilgrimage to his homeland.

On a more mundane level, the failure of cultures to communicate is brought home by the comic problems caused by BT call centres in India, a subject that is clearly close to the writer's heart..

The two hour meditation on mathematics and humanity is presented in typical Complicite style with an ensemble team of actors complemented by music by Nitin Sawnhey and visual effects seen at their best when the modern characters travel to India. There, film mixes with physical theatre to create a satisfying dramatic impression.

The maths can get a little heavy for the uninitiated but the overall formula provides for a satisfying entertainment, projecting four contrasting people and giving the audience a chance to enter the minds of some serious geeks.

Jackie Fletcher reviewed this production in Paris in 2008 and Rachel Sheridan reviewed the Barbican revival, also in 2008

Reviewer: Philip Fisher