Friday, 21 September 2007

Review: A Disappearing Number

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.


Sofi said...

i really wanted to go watch this. interesting review.

Statler said...

Good to have you back Sean!

Sean said...

Thanks very much.

When I was at the Barbican for another play this week there was a stupidly huge queue (over 50 people) for returns for the Complicite show. This kind of theatre is so popular now, very in with the smart upper middle class set.

Anonymous said...

Sean you clearly articulate the experience for me, I find complicite shows a tad too gimmicky! I have seen many and always promise myself never again! But i always return, however this time will definately be the last. It saddened me that essentially what i was watching was a slightly tired re-working (stylisically) of everything else that has gone before; chairs being dragged around a stage, sillhouettes, layering of images, rolling off stage etc. etc
However the most embarrassing moment for me was the final scene in which Al hears a farewell letter being narrated by the now dead Ruth, this was hollywood pastiche at it's worst. if you have seen the English patient (appalling adaptation of an incredible piece of fiction) there is an identical schmaltzy, over sentimental moment, are we meant to weep uncontrollably? this what they are stooping to? i am annoyed and dismayed and will remember only the good times (The Visit, Winters tale and Street of Crocodiles)

Sean said...

Yes, ploughing the same furrow is a problem for some of the devised companies I fear.

Glad you liked my review, agree with your comments too.

Nugae said...

You mean, it's not just me?

I saw the play was on, thought it would be great, persuaded 4 friends to come with me, then writhed throughout because it really didn't seem to go anywhere. Nothing to get your teeth into.

And my friends loved it. They said, unanimously, that it was the best bit of theatre they'd seen for years.

I thought it was just me being a mathematician (by the end I found myself factorising the bloody phone numbers) plus over-anxious as host.

So I'm really glad I wasn't the only one!

Anonymous said...

I cant believe you didnt like the show i thought it was brillient i was confusing at times but by the end it all became clear

Anna said...

Agree with Sean - left me cold. Wasn't greater than the sum of its parts and lacked heart I thought.