Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Complicite: A Disappearing Number

Photographer: Robbie Jack

Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Opera House in association with the British Council present COMPLICITE: A DISAPPEARING NUMBER. Conceived and Directed by SIMON McBURNEY. Devised by The Company. Original Music by Nitin Sawhney.

This is a work that is, finally, about the joys of Pure Mathematics. We are told: "Mathematicians are only makers of patterns, like poets and painters." It is meant to assure us. Now, my fear of mathematics has prevented me from going beyond the simple tasks of accounting my monies in the daily exercise of living in a modern city: Bus fares, the cost of the newspaper and the payment for food, clothing and entertainment etc. But when the actress Saskia Reeves, as the contemporary mathematician, Ruth Minnen, begins her lecture on complex number patterns on the white board of the set design (Michael Levine), I was quickly whisked into a thrilling world of numbers and fractions, that I did not comprehend but was excited about trying to follow. The respect and assumption of the character, Ruth, that her audience would follow her and the transporting joy that she exuded over her chalked expositions was sufficient to sweep me away into an excited place that permitted me to take a journey with her. Comprehending or not. I felt safe to abandon my fears. I became excited about the patterns of numbers on the board and the possibility that here was magic. Mumbo Jumbo certainly, but like other incantations, attractive for their mysteriousness. Two hours later, in the theatre, I found myself literally sobbing through the last five minutes of this remarkable play.

This play tells two interweaving stories. One belongs to what is, in continuous time, the past. "In January 1913 the Cambridge mathematician Godfrey Harold Hardy received a strange letter in the post. It contained wild, fantastic theorems about prime numbers, one of the great mysteries of mathematics......... Hardy came to see that the letter was the work of a genius. What was even more intriguing was that it came from the other side of the world. The author was a 26 year old clerk earning 20 rupees a month in the Madras Port Authority, India. His name was Srinivasa Ramanujan." This becomes the first thread of the play. We follow the relationship and meeting of these two men. East meets West. One a savant/magician of mathematics the other a methodoligist/scientist of mathematics. It follows the journey of Ramanjan, his joy of producing his instinctive creativity, whilst living in a physically challenging western world, Cambridge, and the awe inspired response of the Don, G.H.Hardy.

The other story is, in the continuous time modem, the present, (and yet it is being told to us, so that, it too, is the past) the developing relationship between a Future's Marketeer, Al Cooper (Firdous Bamji) who accidentally stumbles into a lecture hall in the midst of a mathematical lecture and becomes entranced with the lecturer, Ruth Minnen, and is prepared to attempt to comprehend her joys to woo her to his side. That they do marry, procreate and experience loss, and journey around the world. Finishing tragically but humanisticaly triumphantly in India, the birth place of Ramanjuan, is a kind of proof of the number patterns that have been bedazzling us throughout the play, is one of the wonders of Complicite's dense and integrity filled artistry. The astonishing weaving of the mathematical theorems into two simple stories of human relationships, and allowing a fearful mathematical dummy like myself, to realise this, in my seat, in a theatre, is breathtaking in the magnitude of the production's achievement. Hence my sobbing. The sobbing for the beauty of the story-weaving of the two story threads of Ramanjuan and Hardy and Cooper and Minnen, and the dignity of human life and its infinite patterns, and the realisation that the art of mathematics has never been available to me till now -my loss- being humbling and moving. Moving because of the genius of this experience conjured by Simon McBurney and this Company of collaborators.The last moments of the pouring of ashes (sand) from urns into the River Ganges, a powerful theatrical image, deeply burned into my memory retina of greatness.

The last time numbers were thrilling for me was in the Stoppard play of JUMPERS. And there it was the wit and comedy that entranced me. The farcical conjuring of language, and the mixing of the seriously profound with burlesque and gymnastics. Here, in A DISAPPEARING NUMBER, it is the serious plunging into the drama of numbers entwined in human lives being lived that Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford, one of the collaborators of this project, tells us in the program notes, is invigorating: "What is the mysterious journey behind adding up all the whole numbers and getting the answer minus one twelfth? How does one make sense of infinity? What does it mean to say that there are many different types of infinity? Why are the primes fundamental and yet so deeply mysterious to mathematicians? What constitutes a mathematical pattern against the chaos that pervades so much of the physical world? What is mathematical proof?" The fact that I can write this with some clarity, I hope, is some proof of the effectiveness of this extradition of these questions in this production. It is for me, some proof, indeed!

Celia Hoyles, the Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, in her essay in the program summarises my experience of this performance "What thrilled me about this play, though, was that this dramatic human story (of Ramanjuan and Hardy, Cooper and Minnen) was interwoven with the voyage of mathematical discovery on which the two men embarked. The play enacts the feeling of doing mathematics, the fascination of puzzling out intricate patterns, the excitement of fitting ideas together."

This small company of actors, eight in all, are multi skilled. Actors, shiftchangers, "mathematicians", dancers, scene changers. David Annen. Firdous Bamji. Paul Bhattacharjee. Hiren Chate. Divya Kasturi. Chetna Pandya. Saskia Reeves. Shane Shambhu. They are surrounded by a brilliant team of collaborators. Set design by Michael Levine. Lighting by Paul Anderson. Sound by Christopher Shutt. Projection (an integral part of the genius and success of this work) by Sven Ortel for mesmer. Costume by Christina Cunningham. There is then a stage management crew of 13 people, who must work miracles of precision every night to deliver this complex technical production. It is a miracle to contemplate. It is a wonder to watch.

Here is a work, and here is a company that have to be admired and envied for their achievement on all levels, that I regard as great theatre. To quote Michael Billington, a London critic, he hopes that the theatrical experience should encompass three E's: Entertainment. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. A DISAPPEARING NUMBER has all three in infinite number.

The commitment of The Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Opera House in association with the British Council to provide the where withal for this substantial venture to be brought to the people of Sydney must be commended. Our theatre experience has been enhanced.It has also set bench marks of creativity. I was "inspired, moved and dazzled by the performance."

THE LOST ECHO and GALLIPOLI are two recent commendable efforts of The Sydney Theatre Company in the realm of "Theatre Making". Complicite and the work of Robert LePlage, Ariane Mnouchkine and Lloyd Newsome and his company DV8 represent for me some of the ideals of what a company of artists can achieve. (There are others as well.) It is interesting and sobering to read in the program: "One of the most frequently asked questions is how do we create new work? The answer is slowly, with difficulty and only with support." -Simon McBurney. To read further, Co-produced by Complicite, barbicann 07, Ruhrfestspiele, Wiener Festwochen, Holland Festival, in association with Theatre Royal Plymouth. Here is support. I hope the Government bodies and the Corporate philanthropists of Australia have seen this work and what commitment to artists to take risks can be achieved.

The Associate Director, Catherine Alexander, the associate director for the Revival, Douglas Rintoul should be mentioned. But best of all thanks from me to the Brains and fearless Integrity of Simon McBurney and Complicite.

This should not be missed.

Playing now until 2 December at Sydney Theatre. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.

1 comment:

Chris T said...

Wonderful show of depth and humanity.

A must see.