A Disappearing Number

(Published in The Hindu)

In 1997, the Sri Lankan novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje, gave Simon McBurney a book. McBurney is the artistic director of the 27-year-old British theatre group Complicite. The book was “A mathematician’s apology”, written by the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy in 1940 as a defense of pure mathematics. “Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.”  

Complicite’s latest play, “A disappearing number”, turns the beauty of pure maths into stunningly beautiful theatre. It is a play of relationships between numbers, human beings, times, places, cultures and destinies; and between the occasionally grand but always mortal human being and the permanent realities of space, time and ideas.

Lines from “A mathematician’s apology” serve as markers in the human destinies that the play follows. The central relationship is the historical one between Hardy (a warm, quietly driven David Annen) and the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (a somewhat lumbering Shane Shambhu). It began in 1913, just before the First World War and ended with Ramanujan’s untimely death at 32 in Chennai (then Madras) in 1920. He died of tuberculosis, contracted during his cold, lonely and undernourished years in Cambridge collaborating with Hardy. It was not an easy collaboration. Hardy was analytical, Ramanujan intuitive. Equations and theorems came to him as revelations that needed no proofs.

Creating parallel, convergent and divergent patterns with this relationship is the fictional one between a mathematics professor, Ruth Minnen (an animated, impassioned, Saskia Reeves) and an American-Indian futures dealer, Al Cooper (a laconic but ultimately convincing Firdous Bamji). The tussle here is between their different ideas about reality and immortality. For Al, to have children, is to become immortal. Ruth’s tragic miscarriage proves him wrong. Ruth believes in the permanence of ideas. The idea of space and time as continuums that connect past, present and future make human death a significant part of the cosmic design. Despite these serious rifts in understanding and belief, something holds the unlikely pair together, till Ruth’s death of a brain aneurism parts them.

Aninda Rao (a suave Paul Bhattacharjee), a physicist working on string theory, is the sutradhar-actor who moves between the two relationships and the different times and spaces that the play interweaves and layers in multiple ways. He is also our representative on the stage. The play opens with Ruth entering the lecture hall and beginning to write several series of numbers on the white board. One of them, 1+2+3+4….to infinity = - 1/12, was the most significant series in Ramanujan’s first letter to Hardy. At precisely the point at which the audience might be expected to start fidgeting under the onslaught of maths, Aninda steps in and shoves Ruth’s white board up. But a blackboard slides down in its place and Ruth continues to write. Aninda then says cheerfully, if we can’t get rid of the mathematics, we’ll get rid of the mathematician. The blackboard rotates and Ruth disappears into the back.

There’s another mathematical entity that links the fictional relationship to the historical.  When Ramanujan was in a nursing home, Hardy came to visit him and remarked that the number of his taxi was the very uninteresting 1729. “No Hardy,” Ramanujan protested. “It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.” Ruth is touchingly proud that her telephone number ends with these four digits.
The way the stage space is divided makes the interweaving of time, place and relationships fluid. The front, lit aseptically with shadowless light, is the here and now. The back, lit with shifting light and shade, is the past. Between the two spaces stand partitions that can be slid open, winched up or rotated. Projected numbers scroll down and across the front screen, occasionally overlapping back-lit or front-lit human figures. In one unexpected moment of tenderness the numbers turn into snowflakes, watched by Ruth and Al. The split second coordination between video projections and live action segue scenes, creating an immediate and compelling sense of the continuities of time and space. Superb use is made of the theeraseela, the revealing and hiding curtain of traditional Indian dance drama, to theatricalise the initial exchanges between Hardy in Cambridge and Ramanujan in Chennai.

Nitin Sawhney’s original score blends fluidly with the action, its vastly disparate constituents--western music, the drone of the tanpura, the staccato recitation of tabla bols, soft chanting—cohering seamlessly into a sympathetic pattern. At one point two dancers, one female, one male, do the alaripu, not as a cultural sign, but as a pointer to the geometry and calculated rhythmic patterns of Bharata Natyam.

Amongst all the questions the play raises about beauty and life, the question that bothers me is why Ramanujan is played as a dumb and bumbling man, represented only by a monotonously accented voice-over.

The play ends with a profoundly moving scene. Maths is over. Ruth is dead from a brain aneurism. Al must find a new way to connect with her. The great Cauvery is witness to his despair giving way to understanding and acceptance.

Published On : 05-09-2010