A Disappearing Number @ Barbican Theatre, London

cast list
David Annen
Firdous Banji
Paul Bhattacharjee
Hiren Chate
Divya Katsuri
Chetna Pandya
Saskia Reeves
Shane Sahmbhu

directed by
Simon McBurney
Though unarguably slick and often very visually striking, Complicite’s A Disappearing Number returning to the Barbican for a second run having been laden with awards doesn’t always seem to trust its audience.

It tells the story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, a clerk from Madras with only a basic level of education. He sends some of his theories and workings to the Cambridge don G.H Hardy who recognizes their brilliance and invites him to come to England and study with him. This Ramanujan does, though he finds life in England difficult: the cold and particularly the diet are a problem (being a Brahmin and a strict vegetarian he ends up subsisting on apples and rice). Their collaboration is a fruitful one but, though a young man, Ramanujan’s health is failing him, he succumbs to tuberculosis and ends up returning to India.

This fascinating partnership is contrasted with a contemporary story about Ruth, a mathematics lecturer at Brunel, who falls in love with Al, an American banker, a brash but friendly chap who wouldn’t know a prime number if it sat on his lap. They marry and, though both in their forties, attempt to start a family.

The production leaps between these two strands, from the present to the past and back again, creating a busy visual and aural collage of tabla music and Indian dancing and illuminated equations. A spinning blackboard sits at the centre of the stage, around and under which the characters drift (and dance and, at one point, cycle). There are some moments of lovely physical business, some memorable images, but at times there is too much going on, a reluctance to let the stories speak for themselves; the production often feels like an overexcited child, unable to let itself be still.

Hardy, in interview, called his collaboration with Ramanujan, “the one romantic incident in my life.” But the production never lets the audience really know these two men, and whenever things get really interesting it drags the audience back to the twin narrative. Director Simon McBurney provides a wonderful glimpse of Ramanujan trudging round Cambridge in his slippers because he was not used to shoes, munching on apples and allowing his fine mind to bloom, but it is only a glimpse, a whisper. The production doesn’t seem to have a real faith in numbers, it feels it necessary to impose external notions of beauty and art on maths, to make it more easily digestible.

There are also further nuggets of information, rich with potential, that are never developed. When Ramanujan says his horoscope has foretold his death what does this mean to him, how much weight does he put on this? It is never really clear. How does the Brahmin idea of exile really affect him and what sort of reception does he face when he returns to India? These were things I was hungry to know more about, but the production moves at such a lick they slipped away, unexplored.

The legacy of a mathematician’s work and the creation of a child are paralleled and there is a true sense of poignancy when it becomes clear that Ruth will leave neither behind her. But these subtle and interesting ideas sit uneasily beside such blunt devices as the recurring conversations Al has with an Indian call centre worker.

As Hardy, David Annen steers clear of caricature, though straight of back and clipped of tone he is warm and receptive to his friend. Ruth and Al (played by Saskia Reeves and Firdous Banji) however never truly convince as a couple. The design, by Michael Levine, with its overlapping projections, and lighting, by Paul Anderson, are admittedly striking. But considering the acclaim that has been heaped on this production from all corners, it was something of a let down. It has an utterly fascinating story at its heart but it never lets the attention settle; it dances and dazzles and won’t sit still.

Read the musicOMH review of the Broadway production of All My Sons, directed by Simon McBurney here.

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