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How spectacular does that look, eh? And yes, do imagine me saying that in my poshest Brit accent. This is, after all, a picture of Complicité’s 2007 play “A Disappearing Number” that has been touring India. I’ve seen a couple of Complicité’s earlier work and I’m a fan. A huge fan. Which is why I was a bit scared and hugely excited when I read about “A Disappearing Number” coming to Mumbai. Excited because it’s a chance to see Complicité without having to pay for a visa or a ticket to London or New York. Scared because it’s a play apparently about maths, inspired as it is by G.H. Hardy‘s “A Mathematician’s Apology” and looks at the relationship between Srinivas Ramanujan and Hardy.

“A Disappearing Number” has won all sorts of awards, including the Laurence Olivier award for the best play of 2007. It had the genius of Simon McBurney who has an incredible ability to create the most awesome images and create spaces on stage using technology with frightening intelligence. Here’s the good news: it’s visually striking. Here’s the good news for people like me who hate and fear maths with every fibre of their being: not even Complicité can make maths comprehensible.

I wasn’t in any danger of falling asleep while watching “A Disappearing Number” at NCPA. If the play hadn’t kept me awake, the constant coughing from different members of the audience would have ensured I was wide-eyed. I know, I know, you can’t blame people for coughing. It’s impossible to control. But dammit all, it’s bloody annoying. Someone once told me that nine times out of 10, if an audience is coughing, it’s the sonic equivalent of fidgeting with boredom. What’s on stage is just not absorbing enough. I’ve no idea if this is true in general but it certainly could have been true of  the final performance of “A Disappearing Number” in Mumbai.

Even at their worst, Complicité puts up one helluva show and they did that. Shifting screens, clever illusions, gorgeous images — it was all there. What “A Disappearing Number” didn’t have was a story that was strong enough to hold on to an audience’s attention for 2 hours (without interval). There were silly little problems, like the bit in the beginning when one of the actors takes great pains to explain how this is all a play and it’s all about creating illusions. Sets were pushed back. The stage manager was revealed, etc. etc. Why? Who knows? No one slipped out of character ever again. One of the characters, Ruth, dies while travelling except when her husband comes to pick up her stuff from her office, her passport is in the carton that has all her books and things. Unless she’s working for the MI5, how on earth did she manage to die in India while her passport was in England? I know this is nitty gritty but they told me in school that God lies in the details.

Then there’s the matter of the maths. Perhaps those who do understand numbers and to whom “string theory” doesn’t evoke the image of string saw a connection between the spouted theorems and algebraic equations that pattered throughout the play. Me, I didn’t get a thing and I didn’t understand how any of it contributed to the story. “Arcadia” is an excellent example of how mathematics can actually structure narrative. No such thing in “A Disappearing Number”. It seemed as though random equations and mathematical concepts were thrown around by different characters and if they were all part of one work or related to one idea, I didn’t get it. Hardy and Ramanujan barely figure in the play. Their few exchanges are short, formal and entirely devoid of any emotional resonance. There’s a parallel story between a mathematics professor, Ruth, and her husband, Al. It’s better fleshed out than the Ramanujan-Hardy plot and maths does figure in it but with all the subtlety of a battering ram. The storytelling in general wasn’t clever, the narrative devices weren’t subtle and as an audience, I don’t think we really cared about any one of the characters on the stage. The idea of using the tabla with its complex mathematical rhythm structures was a good idea but the point at which the actor playing Ramanujan transformed into an airplane steward and started dancing Bharatnatyam, I used all of my acting capacity to not burst into giggles. I’m good. Not even a cough emerged from my straight face.

Most surprising to me, though, was the strange sense of disappointment that I felt while watching “A Disappearing Number”. To a large extent the power and joy of watching theatre is the sense of live energy. An enormous part of “A Disappearing Number” is not live. Dialogues are recorded, there are lots of videos and in a way, it’s almost more cinematic than theatrical. To me, as beautiful as all the imagery may have been, the amount of recorded material sapped “A Disappearing Number” of the power that fires up a live theatre performance. I couldn’t connect and about 20 minutes from the end, I was looking at my watch wondering how much was left. Which is what I have done during every minute of every maths class that I’ve ever attended. That Complicité kept me watching them clattering out mathematical equations and not the clock for more than 90 minutes is quite impressive. But now I know for certain that not only is maths a drag but them mathematicians aren’t particularly engaging either, even if they’re created and directed by Simon McBurney.

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6 thoughts on “A Disappointing Number

    • It’s not bad. I think even at their worst Complicité is better than many, many theatre groups. Just not quite as good as I expect them to be. I blame it on maths.

  1. Agree mostly with you. It was touted as a play re math and the Hardy/ Ramanujan relationship and I came away none the wiser re both. It was mainly about the more contemporary relationship with every Indian stereotype thrown in, the diaspora engaged in futures and physics, call centres and Ramanujan whose curious writing style made him look neanderthalian.(um, did neanderthal man write?). Then the pregnancy issue with ultrasound images projected and panties pulled down was laughable and cringeworthy.
    Yes, sat through and thoroughly enjoyed a slick production, but slickness can’t replace math and that’s what I went to see.

  2. good to hear dissenting voices- it was all form and not much substance. spectacular, stunning -with lots of AV and some magic even, but no emotional connect, and one cared less and less for what happend next. too cool for its own good. the parallel story was a filler for the sr one, which really has not much to go by any way.
    hemant

  3. Anon,
    From what I gathered, the reason the actor exposed the apparatus of the stage production was to contrast it with numbers/mathematics which are commonly thought of as abstractions. His point was that mathematics( mathematical patterns, if you will) is more “real” than we commonly infer it to be.
    The reason why we see her passport with her husband is because her belongings have been returned to him. Remember he wants to throw the whole suitcase into the river but chooses chalk instead? The passport and her books came back to the near and dear ones I suppose.
    Structurally, I assume the play followed the divergent series that Ramanujan wrote about extensively: emerging from a common point of origin but gradually moving in all sorts of directions.
    Maths is a drag but mathematicians rarely are. Have a look at young Galois who lost his life at 20 fighting a duel to defend the honour of his loved one:
    http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/Duel-at-Dawn/ba-p/2905

    Also, I thought David Auburn’s ‘Proof’ was a very moving play where you really felt for the characters. However, the problem there was the portrayal of the mathematical genius. Usually, the math genius is a bit of a mystical figure with low social skills, a bit of shaman who finds redemption through love or through unsolicited success(Darren Arronofsky’s ‘Pi’). I was happy that Complicite avoided this common character arc. There is no easy redemption: Al never crosses the mathematical divide to reach his wife and Ramanujan dies in what was, for all practical purposes, a math sweatshop. The play implicates Hardy in an unusual way without diluting his contribution to the history of mathematics. We knew the British were unsolicited guests but here then was a new perspective: they were somewhat inexperienced hosts.
    The stage razzle-dazzle was breath-taking of course but I walked away with at least two things: that math can be art. It need not only have purpose for the material world. Ramanujan then essentially contributed to an aesthetic endeavour. And second, the difference between what is ‘continuous’ and what is ‘discrete’.
    Sorry if I sound a tad earnest about this. I feel awkward defending a production that genuinely moved me. Perhaps I was bought over quickly but hopefully, unlike Al and his wife, this is a divide we will somewhere be able to cross.

  4. Deepika, did you think Ramanujan looked like a somewhat broader Kal Penn? I found the resemblance very disconcerting. *shudder*

    Hemant, hello. I guess part of the problem is that there’s very little that can be authoritatively said about Hardy and Ramanujan’s relationship and so far as conjecturing goes, “The First Class Man” has already been there and done that.

    Ankur, for a second there I thought the cigarettes that all Parisians puff on was named after the mathematician in your link and almost had an aneurysm. But no, that’s the Gauloise. Like I said to Chetna, I don’t think it was a bad play (I live in the land of Lilette Dubey productions and Neil LaBute rip-offs, for crying out loud) and it’s all very well to whoop about the divergent series, provided it doesn’t end up in a divergent narrative that doesn’t feel like its different aspects are connected. I didn’t feel that connection, at all, but I’m glad you did. I will argue, however, that maths can be artistic perhaps but not art. For one simple reason: maths demands that ultimately a single correct answer while art demands that I accept your opinion of “A Disappearing Number” is as correct as mine.

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