culture wars logo archive about us links contact current
about us



  A Disappearing Number
Barbican, London

Ursula Strauss
posted 19 September 2007

What a pleasure it is to see Complicite in action! This view seems to be increasingly shared by others, judging by the company’s ever more prominent appearances. The sheer pleasure comes from their stylishness, visual inventiveness, the stimulation of our intelligence that requires us to think, to be involved, that challenges us… all means that the two hours of A Disappearing Number do not seem to have any slack moments.

A Disappearing Number is about relationships: mathematical, human and universal. It traces the intellectual friendship between the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and the English professor, GH Hardy, in the 1920s. This historical relationship is paralleled with the contemporary relationship between a female maths lecturer, Ruth (played with liveliness and humour by Saskia Reeves) and Al, an American futures trader of Asian descent. Along the way the play invokes ideas of truth as allied to beauty, the attraction (and disintegration) of opposing relationships, the passage of humans along the pathway of infinity, and, a favourite theme of the director Simon McBurney, the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

The skittish rhythm and restless jumps can be overwhelming, however. Ideas are tantalisingly tossed into the mix, then dropped. Issues of migration and cross-cultural relationships. War as ‘simple’ maths. The place of the maternal. This profusion does all tie into the theme of infinity, in which everything passes without ruffling the progression too much, but on a practical level it means that the play lacks the some of the emotional impact of an earlier Complicite piece like Mnemonic, which gave us some quieter moments that allowed feeling to develop.

For this reason, the chief exhilaration of the play comes from the multimedia design (Michael Levine). Characters walk toward a revolving whiteboard and we see them turn from the real into their recorded images. Similarly, speech is interspersed with recorded speech, reinforcing the theatricality of what is on stage but also reminding us how we leave our impression as we pass through time. One of the most vital aspects of Complicite’s theatre is the way banal objects from our everyday lives are incorporated and given imaginative legs (an overhead projector, a powerpoint presentation). This brings some meaning and mystery to the more dreary surroundings of our lives – something we all long for.

Till 6 October 2007


All articles on this site Culture Wars.