As the lights begin to dim we find ourselves in a lecture theatre. A young maths professor, nervously scratching her arm, begins to write numbers on a large white board. Sequences. 1 2 3 4 5. And then series. 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5. She explains her workings as she goes, in the slightly rushed yet pleasantly jovial tone of someone explaining something completely obvious to a room full of people for whom she is aware it is not so. We stay with her however, for a little while at least, following her logic, understanding her workings. But then quickly the logic outpaces us; numbers become letters, letters become symbols. Soon she her lecture is soaring over our heads and disappearing off into another reality. A world of Maths (capital M); a place of logic and ideas that the audience, delightedly chuckling at their incomprehensibility, simply cannot penetrate.
And just as this moment passes, another actor enters, introducing himself to us as an actor; a performer in this play. None of this, he assures us is real. He takes the glasses from the professor and shows us they have no lenses. He slides the edges of the lecture theatre set off into the wings. Then suddenly, with barely anything actually happening other than his accent changing, he too leaves us. Launching himself off, into the world of Theatre (capital T), he is now a physics professor, in a taxi in India; the sound of traffic erupts across the auditorium and suddenly a projection of a busy Indian street fills the space where the white board was just a second ago.
It is with these beautifully paralleled moments that A Disappearing Number begins. Moments of take-off that play with the gap between everyday life and a space of ideas and imagination. Inviting us to see other worlds in the process of being made.
This show is, as I'm sure most of you know, the latest from Simon McBurney’s hugely acclaimed company Complicite. Much like their earlier piece, Mneumonic (for which, in form at least, this could practically be a sequel), the show elegantly balances complicated ideas, famous historical moments, and more intimate narratives.
We are told the story of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his friendship with the Cambridge professor Godfrey Hardy over the first few decades of the 20th Century. Yet at the same time, we also see a modern-day maths lecturer, obsessed with Ramanujan, and her relationship with an American hedge fund manager and second-generation Indian who has never returned to his parents’ original home. Between these two stories float numerous other characters, beautifully realised by the incredibly talented cast; a Indian physicist delivering a lecture on String Theory, a student, working as a maid at a Ramada Inn near Heathrow, an Indian lady working in a BT call centre in Mumbai.
To realise these disparate narratives and places, the show commands the full extent of the Barbican’s expansive stage. Behind the traditional lecture theatre ‘set’ are numerous opaque divides that move ceaselessly, rising and falling, sliding aside and rotating. Onto these divides are projected an unending series of videos and images, some conjuring whole cities, others simply forming a window or quietly shadowing the actions of the characters on stage. As the screens silently shift and the images on them appear and dissolve, they create an impossible (almost indeed, infinite) depth.
We move seamlessly between India and Cambridge, in a moment a study melts into an airport or a bedroom or a river. At its most staggering moments, the stage is all these places at once, the small company of actors darting unendingly through this geographical maze; dancing, talking, moving props and scenery and playing countless extras.
The anthropologist Victor Turner once stated that theatre is a way in which society can cut out a piece of itself for inspection. This show in many seems an attempt at the complete opposite. The fluid space of the stage, in its very instability and ambiguity, becomes a gap in reality; an empty space that works like a black hole, sucking everything from the real world into it – war, history, maths, immigration, commerce, globalisation, death, love. This is a play about everything.
More specifically this is a play about a different way of looking at everything – a mathematical way of looking at everything. The play seems to see the history of the world as one huge impossible series, summing to infinity. In the empty space of the stage, away from reality (on the other side of the equals sign) Complicite go about creating that infinity. A space in which everything is connected. Everything is joined in a series of elegant patterns. Characters from different times mirror each other’s movements, a woman trying on her shoes becomes an example in a lecture taking place a year and several hundred miles away, three entirely separate deaths in three different times and places are collapsed together into one single act of passing.
What sets the company apart is the effortless beauty with which they fold these disparate worlds into each other. Time is no longer linear, is not even fragmented or disrupted, but is stirred through the space like milk in tea. And to the subtle soundtrack of Nitin Sawhney’s music, this has an almost spiritual resonance; there is in fact a telling reference to the importance in Hinduism of this form of cyclical, interconnectedness. Indeed, A Disappearing Number, like its central figure Ramanujan, undermines the opposition of a logical (and typically Western) mathematics and an illogical (Eastern) spirituality; demonstrating the two (like everything else) to be innately connected in their explorations of the infinite.
And yet. There is something missing in all of this. Undoubtedly, the show exploits beautifully the conceit of the stage, as an Empty Space, becoming an indefinable, infinite reality unto itself. A world of limitless (im)possibility. And yet, the audience always remain very much back in reality – on the other side of the equation, looking in. And this has very little to do with the nonetheless sterile and cavernous Barbican auditorium, along with the Shaw Theatre possibly the worst theatre space in London.
What this comes down to is a matter of liveness, an issue that has already been discussed at length by Chris, Andrew and myself. The actors are entirely dislocated from the audience. Their voices come to us through microphones; when we hear the words they say, they are in essence, already second-hand, already recorded. Similarly the actors must move in time to the sound and video recordings projected all around them. They are no longer live beings, performing and reacting to a given audience on a given night. They are cogs in a vast and beautifully realised digital spectacle. Sitting in the middle rows of the stalls I have rarely felt so distant from the performers in front of me, they seemed no more real than the images of Bombay or Cambridge flickering on the screens behind them. I certainly marvelled at this staggering televisual universe, enjoyed its careful teasing apart and soldering together of ideas and histories and stories, but undoubtedly, I never felt a part of it.
Reading the programme before the show I noticed both that the company are now completing work on a screenplay and that the Barbican Cinema is showing a series of recordings of their earlier shows. It certainly felt from this show, as beautifully conceived and realised as it was, that this is the direction in which the company is moving – away from the visceral liveness of theatre, towards a different kind of spectacle.