Is it compulsory to like all new pieces by Complicite? It did feel a little bit like that as I left the Barbican Theatre having watched the companies’ latest play, A Disappearing Number. The crowds around me were loudly showing their approval for the show, but more on the cleverness and general importance of the company than on the merits of this particular piece it seemed (‘aren’t they clever!’).
I’m not saying that I disliked it, the two hours running time passed quite quickly enough, even in the rather uncomfortable upper circle of the Barbican Theatre, just that the whole play felt rather too clever, sometimes smug, and sometimes simply flat. Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney (who doesn’t appear in the production), with an addition credit ‘devised by the company’, the play tells us two stories linked by India and maths. One is of the real life maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his significant work in Cambridge with GH Hardy a don at Trinity College. The other is of a modern day transatlantic couple, an American businessman of Asian decent and a white British maths professor (what I wrote in my notebook on the way home as a ‘predictable global inter-ethnic modern couple’). This second tale sometimes seems more dominant than the more interesting, but more unconventional, story of Ramanujan’s life. The modern love story, running through the usual issues of identity and understanding, and eventually loss and grief, didn’t inspire me very much. Certainly the use of India as he lynchpin in the relationship not only between the couple but between them and the genius of 80 years earlier, didn’t really work for me either. Yes, India is magical, crowded and overwhelming, yes they have call centres that deal with UK customers (there was a strand about Indian call centre workers, which was groan worthy and not sweet as clearly intended), yes we live in a global world. All this I know, and didn’t learn anything much about it anyway. What I didn’t know about is the fascinating story of an Indian man who was persuaded to leave his home and travel many thousands of miles to live in Cambridge, survive on a diet of rice and carrots, was rejected by the conventional academic establishment, became gravely ill, possibly had a mental breakdown and died tragically young, but who also managed to (I’m reliably informed) produce some of the most startling mathematical formulae in history. So we glimpsed the life of the exotic figure in a drab academic environment, but we never really got very deep down (of course this would have to be a somewhat speculative rather than accurately historically representative personal character). So A Disappearing Number intrigued me, but never satisfied me. The demonstration of maths done on a blackboard at the beginning of the show left me none the wiser, I’m afraid that I wanted to relate to the maths professors by their personalities, as I’m useless with the numbers. The physical touches in the production are classic Complicite and are done beautifully (bat and eyelid and the stage picture has totally changed). The cast are excellent, I always believed in their characters, especially Paul Battacharjee (in varied roles, and sometime narrator). Music is composed by Nitin Sawhney, and he should be given credit for a beautiful score that at no point tries to dominate. An often interesting piece, that sadly falls flat on occasion and didn’t connect all the dots for me.