A Disappearing Number

Simon McBurney
Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Nanterre, Paris

Production photo

Simon McBurney's latest show has already done a tour of several theatres in the UK, Europe and the US. Like most of his work these days, A Disappearing Number is co-produced through European networks and partnerships -- Barbicanbite 07, Wiener Festwochen (the Vienna Festival), the Holland Festival, the Ruhrfestspiele, the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Parisian Festival d'Automne - ensuring both funding and performance dates in advance. McBurney's name is credit-worthy in producing venues across the globe and his reputation equally ensures full houses in major theatres. He has become one of the celebrities of the international performing arts circuits. McBurney's name guarantees high quality production values, engaging narratives, slick pacing, imaginative concepts and fine ensemble acting. And in return, the circuits guarantee McBurney can count on funding for costly multimedia productions and the long periods of gestation and rehearsal required for his working methods.

A Disappearing Number bears all the trademarks of a McBurney production, a complex narrative of interlacing twin histories, one true, one fictional, spanning vast distances in time and space between Europe and the Indian sub-continent almost century apart. As usual McBurney has chosen to intertwine transcendental mysteries with the mundane realities of human existence; the imponderable and the tangible are intrinsically linked. His characters are questors and pilgrims.

The central theme for A Disappearing Number is the elegance of numbers, dancing in an infinite potential for configurations and equations on into infinity. The message is that everything in the universe is linked, there are no gaps between numbers, no vacuum in space, only humans, it seems, manage to drive a wedge between each other and the world around them. It is a thrilling concept, perhaps too ambitious, because while the show has all the necessary ingredients of a McBurney triumph, it lacks the spark that inflames the imagination. If anything, it is too perfect, too slick, too polished, and the narrative sequences are ultimately too pedestrian to inspire the overwhelming sense of awe and engagement that sucked one into Mnemonic.

An American futures trader at a conference at the University of Bristol finds himself by mistake in a maths lecture, a random occurrence with far-reaching consequences. He falls for the eloquent young mathematician and afterwards begs for her phone number; a number of great significance for both Al and for Ruth but for entirely different reasons. Like numbers in mathematical equations, the couple converge and diverge. Ruth has a miscarriage and eventually dies of a brain aneurysm on a train in India. Al, whose parents were Indians, decides to make a pilgrimage following in her footsteps.

In a parallel tale, starting in 1913, the 26-year-old clerk at the Madras Port Authority sends his theorems to the eminent Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy. The clerk, Srinvasa Ramanujan, is an autodidact, but Hardy immediately recognises the work of a genius and eventually the Brahmin Indian is persuaded to don shoes and western clothes, take a passage from India to the inclement weather and frosty mentality of Trinity College. Suffering from the cold and the English meat-eaters diet, he works obsessively on his equations, contracting tuberculosis. After a period in an asylum that drives him almost to insanity, and prejudicial treatment at Trinity, he returns to Madras where he dies in 1920 at the age of thirty three, leaving a remarkable legacy that will enable the progression of mathematics and physics, including the String Theory, which postulates the invisible links that glue the universe together and enable its continuous expansion. The events are based on a monograph by G.H. Hardy himself.

The two stories are linked by Anglo-Indian physicist Aninda Rao, who crosses the present-day narrative from time to time and is a much underused character, and by Ruth's pilgrimage to India to research Ramanujan's writings.

The piece aims to seduce us into a meditation on meaning, on the strangeness and familiarity inherent in randomness and patterns of significance, on human obsessions, self-destructive compulsions, fundamental human needs in the context of poetical equations reaching into an infinity of infinities. Somehow it misses the mark and gets bogged down in trivialities. It spends too much time on the basic storyline. Temporal and spatial disjunctions fail to detract from the fact that we are being told this happens, then that happens and so on.

Moreover, there is an imbalance between the scenes depicting the life of Ramanujan, who is the most interesting character, and those set in the present. Where there is plot, it seems drawn from soap opera: Al spends too much time in foreign hotels clinching deals and Ruth wants a baby. We get the point. It's about links and togetherness, about one and one making two or three or anything we want it to, about all the matter in the physical universe. But neither Al nor Ruth are interesting enough to engage.

The swiftly moving pieces of the set, swinging panels, sliding walls seem too slick with actors slipping briskly around and between them. The flickering sequence of images and backward counting dates that took us back to 1913 through historical events seems too much to labour the point without adding mood or pith. The video imagery too often states the obvious. Frequently, the scenes are illustrations of the narrative rather than embodiments. It has the feel of a dramatised BBC historical documentary, with information fleshed out by actors in period costumes. The vibrancy, the breadth of colour and vision intrinsic to such wonderful productions as Out of a House Walked a Man, Street of Crocodiles, An Elephant Vanishes is lacking. And the superb movement that usually lifts McBurney's work above the average for British theatre is absent too, replaced by impeccable timing and precise choreography. In spite of a very fine cast, giving 110%, it is efficient like clockwork but misses the heartbeats that are life's pulse.

It was disappointing that the production seldom goes beyond the basic storyline, and perhaps the narrative thrust is too rapid and relentless, so that we are rushed through the events, while inconsequential details dominate for a disproportionate length of dramatic time. The scenes pertaining to Ramaujan adhere predominantly and superficially to the historical facts, drawing on letters and Hardy's book. Alternatively, the scene in which Al, accidentally locked in his deceased wife's lecture room overnight while collecting her things, spends too on his long frightening the cleaner, banging on the doors, phoning a friend who is far away and talking on the phone to a operative in an Indian call centre trying to acquire Ruth's phone number as his own, frustrated by the incompetence of the system. Perhaps being locked in that space is relevant, in a mathematical, esoteric way, but it's not dramatically satisfying. His conversation with the operative is amusing and even pertinent to our present relationship with India, with the telecommunications, but not connectedness, of the digital age. But it's too long and the point is laboured.

I didn't find any of the characters ultimately interesting enough to enable my involvement. And this is not Brechtian theatre either. There is no push and pull of alienation that provokes thought. The two most engaging characters, Ramanujan and Rao, could have been better used. I would have been more intrigued to see how Ramanujan's theorums became Rao's String Theory, put to use in his job for CERN, especially given that in the tangible realities of our present-day world, the particle-collision reactor is almost ready to investigate the origins of the universe.

A couple of moments of Indian dance and wonderful music, some minor characters in airports, on trains and in libraries accounted only for a taste of India, a changing India, an encounter for members of the Indian diasporas, but a series of clichés nonetheless.

It seems as if McBurney has staged what should have been part of the process of research and experimentation. This should be a stage in the material's evolution, part of the journey, not the destination. The participation of the multimedia images is insufficiently developed, and McBurney has coasted too much on a winning format.

The international celebrity circuit has enabled certain 'auteurs' of the performing arts to experiment, then to develop their hallmark styles, to interact and create an international avant garde, with adequate funding and guaranteed audiences. Some would say that this has led to complacency, dispelled the need to find original and challenging new avenues of formal investigation. Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson have recently been cited as instances of stagnation. We should be very wary of dismissing these networks and funding opportunities so easily, but this time McBurney has turned out a format production. Maybe the Olivier, the Evening Standard and the Drama Critics Awards for A Disappearing Number are a sign that McBurney is inclining too much to the British mainstream. It is to be hoped that he has broken the format and experimented afresh with his next production Shun-Kin.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Barbican Pit and Rachel Sheridan reviewed the Barbican revival in 2008

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher