A Disappearing Number @ Barbican Theatre, London

directed by
Simon McBurney
Conceived and directed by their artistic director Simon McBurney, and devised by the company, Complicites new show bears all the hallmarks of their distinctive style, developed over 24 years.

With its extraordinarily fluid stagecraft, breathtaking visuals and inventive representation of complex intellectual ideas, A Disappearing Number delights the eye and inspires the imagination in equal portions.

The show is based around two overlapping stories. The first, set around the time of the First World War, follows the relationship between the ground-breaking Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Firdous Bamji), whose theories about prime numbers not only revolutionised mathematics but suggested new ways of looking at the universe, and the Cambridge don G.H. Hardy (David Annen) who invited him over to England. As told via the lecture of a modern-day British-Asian physicist (Paul Bhattacharjee), this moving personal friendship also reflects fascinating cultural connections and disparities between East and West.

Linked tangentially to this historic episode is the contemporary fictional story of the love between Al (Saraj Chaudhry), an Indian-American businessman, and Ruth (Saskia Reeves), an English maths lecturer who is a follower of the ideas of Hardy and visits India to find out more about Ramanujan. The ultimately tragic outcome of their relationship, after a touchingly hesitant romance between these two middle-aged people from totally different backgrounds who come together by accident, is told with both humour and tenderness.

It is not necessary to fully understand the intricacies of the maths in order to appreciate this show what comes across powerfully is the beauty and poetry of pure mathematics which seems to reflect harmonies in the external world. The design of Michael Levine, lighting of Paul Anderson, projections of Sven Ortel and sound of Christopher Shutt all coalesce to make a ravishing impression on the senses, while suggesting a paradox at the heart of human lives which, like the concept of infinite series, can get progressively closer without ever merging. In addition, Nitin Sawhneys characteristically eclectic score mixes electronica with the more distinctively Indian sound of tabla drumming to great atmospheric effect.

The multi-media staging, where actors seem to be jostled in a taxi-ride with a film backdrop of the crowded streets of Madras, or where recorded voiceovers of telephone messages and projected images of various documents counterpoint the live action, make highly creative juxtapositions between different times and places. It could be argued that there is actually too much going on sometimes, so that the visual innovations become beautiful distractions rather than forwarding the dramatic impetus of the stories. However, overall the show demonstrates with remarkable theatrical flair not only the magic of numbers but the mystery of mortality. It also strongly reinforces G.H. Hardys assertion that A mathematician, like a poet or a painter, is a maker of patterns.

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