When two disciplines capable of infinite possibilities merge, they are most likely to create cosmic patterns of eternal significance. Simon McBurney, artistic director of the UK theatre company Complicite strings Mathematics and Theatre together to achieve what only seems obvious in hindsight. Ironically, thanks to our conventional education, we are largely oblivious of the magic of such fusion.
Periodically quoting from Hardy''s magnum opus 'A Mathematician''s Apology', the two-hour medley comprises disparate pieces from two consciously intertwined stories - one, a contemporary fiction, the other, a fact from history. The modern-day unusual love story between a British professor of Mathematics, Ruth (Saskia Reeves) and Al (Firdous Bamji), a high-flying American-Indian who deals in the Futures market, is a figurative window to the other chronicle - the momentous relationship between the Indian mathematical genius Ramanujan (Shane Shambu) and his reputed mentor, the Cambridge mathematician G H Hardy (David Annen).
Ruth is obsessed with Mathematics and overwhelmed by Ramanujan''s short-lived crusade while Al is struggling with Mathematics to claim Ruth''s love. The play begins with a deliberately authentic explanation of the Riemann zeta function which Ramanujan had intuitively arrived as 1 +2 + 3 + 4 +... = - 1/12 in his introductory letter to Hardy. Just when the numbers on the whiteboard get more and more intricate, physicist-anchor (Paul Bhattacharjee) takes over, relieving the audience of real math only to engage them with interesting parallels and connections between the lives of the two pairs - whether in the hardship of academic quests and travels, the excitement of love and courtship, the conflicts of cultural differences, the self-destructive fixation with deep research, and even the endless human cycle of life and death, like the continual numbers series on either side of zero.
As we are swiftly shuttled back and forth - connecting Chennai with London, and the 1930s with our times - you discover mathematical precision even in the mystic light effects, sliding partitions, rotating screens, swirling chairs or the manner in which the actors fall over to make different representations in time and space. While the exemplary technical and technological finesse, we learn, are defining features of Complicite, Nitin Sawhney''s music with its chant-like effect is outstanding - incessant at times, but never imposing - depicting the spiritual highs and lows of fundamental research.
The delightful collage is indeed scintillating, but one''s left yearning for a few more pages from the Ramanujan-Hardy diary, supposedly the play''s central and the more invigorating theme. Given the striking multi-hued contrasts that both Ramanujan and Hardy discovered in each other, the saga of their unique collaboration was naturally theatrical. Ramanujan''s penance, fatalistic beliefs and staunch ways or Hardy''s rock-solid patronage, sincere apologies or his love for pure mathematics...at least a couple of dramatic illustrations could have been elaborate.
Instead, we have the Ruth-Al chemistry looming large. Their fag-end pathos (as also the superb performance by the lead players) does put the love story in perspective but only after accommodating the contextually trifling snippets of their love life, particularly the intimate moments. And if the quip on the Indian BPO industry represents the contemporary version of the India-UK cultural divide of Ramanujan''s times, it hardly serves the purpose, other than causing a respite for the audience. Ditto for the hotel scene that causes embarrassment for Al before the housekeeping girl, as the TV remote inadvertently triggers a porn channel.
In contrast, the legendary 1729 taxicab dialogue between Hardy and Ramanujan seems hurried and devoid of effect. Ramanujan''s voice-over bears an unmistakably heavy Malayalee accent, not the Tamil variant that the Iyer Brahmin Ramanujan in all probability would have used. And the towering figure of Hardy, who had a way with both numbers and words, makes a hazy appearance in most sequences.
But it is the sheer magnificence of this exceptional production - that treads on such elliptic, continual and infinite numerical journeys that stays. Armed with the poetic demeanour of Hardy who believed 'Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics,' we owe it to Complicite for this perceptive tribute to Ramanujan, a posthumous hero and a forgotten genius in his own country.
A DISAPPEARING NUMBER is a one-of-a-kind odyssey that marvels at the sheer beauty of Mathematics as much as it ponders over its correlation with the deepest mysteries of life. Thanks to this trend-setting experiment, hard-core practitioners and distant admirers of Mathematics would see the subject in refreshingly new light. And even the reluctant followers and compulsive detractors would develop some affinity towards infinity, if not love for Math.
*A cost accountant by qualification, Sudhir Raikar brings with him over 17 years of experience in writing that includes journalistic reports & stories, book and film reviews, analytical writing, critical appreciation, marketing communication, translations and business writing for leading media houses and corporates. His passion is fit-for-purpose writing.