Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 11 September, 2007

The arts and the sciences in our culture often seem to engage in a reciprocal snobbery, even contempt: each side imagines itself unjustly slighted by the other, and so treats its opposite poorly in supposed return. It is thus especially admirable for Simon McBurney and Complicité to make theatre out of the wonders of pure mathematics.

The play adopts twin strands of narrative. In one, we follow (often retrospectively) the romance between a man and his mathematician beloved; in the other, we attempt to grasp the passionate intellectual relationship between the intuitive, brilliant Srinivasa Ramanujan and Cambridge don G.H. Hardy during the second decade of the last century. It is not easy to connect emotionally with conversations which take place almost entirely in number theory, but periodically one is struck by the simple beauty of a proposition which, although expressed solely in terms of ideas (which is what numbers are), can nevertheless be more real and invariant than the physical world. It is at once simple, massive and yet somehow transcendent, like sunrise at Stonehenge.

This simplicity, even in the face of what may seem wildly abstruse mathematical theorems (Ramanujan first attracted Hardy's attention by proving that the sum of 1+2+3+...to infinity equals minus one-twelfth), serves Complicité well. The company's last Barbican appearance, with the Haruki Murakami adaptation The Elephant Vanishes, was visually ravishing, but struck me as probably too eager to indulge in hi-tech wizardry as a kind of modern-day exotica, an easy emblem for contemporary Japan. This staging is much more elegant: rotating black- and whiteboards facilitate entrances and exits, the projection techniques used are seldom ostentatious, and the real stars of the show are the numerical concepts. (The performers' roles are not even individually identified in the programme.) Indeed, some of the most obtrusive moments are those in which dramatic action is accompanied by Indian dance – another form of shorthand exotica. Conversely, Hiren Chate's live tabla playing sometimes morphs seductively into pure mathematics, especially when the recited vocal padhant accompaniment of its rhythms shades into chants of number sequences reminiscent of the libretto to Philip Glass's Einstein On The Beach. (Glass, coincidentally, had worked as a student on ways of representing Indian musics in western notation.) One can hear the beauty of the sequences without grasping the rules which govern them.

The evening (110 minutes without interval) takes a while to get going. Saskia Reeves' opening maths lecture reveals a palpable gap between a subject which relies on precision in its terminology and the too-frequently imprecise delivery of the lines: such moments would scarcely count as fluffs in another theatrical context, but here they are disproportionately conspicuous. Then, just as we are beginning to shuffle awkwardly, Paul Bhattacharjee enters and addresses us directly: "You're probably wondering if this is the whole show..." As pre-emptive strikes of self-deprecation go, it is impeccably judged.

And of course, the "real" subject is nothing as simple as the stories of Ramanujan and Hardy, of Al and Ruth... not even as simple as the basic yet eloquent language of number. It expands to take in all kinds of concepts which have similar yet elusive meanings in maths and in other areas, such as "proof", "identity" and so on. At one point, a pun is perpetrated that is so grim it would be in poor taste if it were not expressed so obliquely: the total number of casualties in World War One is expressed as the product of a series of prime numbers – a mathematical process, we are told, known as "decomposition". Yet even this chimes with the fatalism exhibited by Ramanujan and the repeated depiction of transience in characters' lives. For number sequences, like life, keep progressing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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