National Theater Live brings stage productions in London to cinema settings around the world, and the most recent was a broadcast of A Disappearing Number, a production by Simon McBurney’s Complicite Theatre Company.
This latest play offers up a meditation on a variety of themes but is primarily structured around the abstraction, beauty and mystery of mathematics. Interlaced through this big arc concept are the stories of fictional and real individuals, most notably Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan, the South Indian math savant, and his English advocate G. H. Hardy. Infinity becomes a character in this play and the primary tool for moving the action outward and into the transcendent. As the mathematicians in the play tell us, numbers are a gapless continuum—an infinity of infinities—and a similar linkedness creates an unbroken stream that connects us to each other, whether still in bodily form or not. A Disappearing Number feels less like of a play than in invitation to surrender to a guided meditation on concepts that are much larger than our lives and yet so deeply felt.
I have only seen one other McBurney production—Mnemonic—but his theatrical approach in both plays feels like a blended weave of several trends: the idea-centric style of Tom Stoppard, the theatrical physicality demonstrated in the work of PunchDrunk, the deft incorporation of multimedia to support rather than dominate the overall experience. McBurney’s work seems to always begin with the personal (a narrative or an idea that may seem small) and then spends the duration of the play expanding that particular into a transcendent communal. The explorations keep moving outward, centrifugally, and the end of that journey is far from that quiet starting point.
I like this closing paragraph from a review by Alexandra Coghlan at the Arts Desk:
There is an elation, a freedom about this incredibly precise drama that is intoxicating. Surrender yourself to its freefall of images and ideas and it repays the trust tenfold, bombarding you with suggestions but rarely imposing conclusions. Above all, A Disappearing Number is a translation of the beauty of numbers and abstraction for the layman, a concept much attempted but rarely successful. Simon McBurney’s is theatre at its most inventive, drawing connections and making relationships in a way that both G H Hardy and Ramanujan would surely have understood.