'Disappearing Number': A Vivid Theatrical Equation

July 14, 2010

Jeff Lunden

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Mathematics, string theory, death, infinity -- and telephone call centers in India? The stuff of drama?

A Disappearing Number, the Olivier Award-winning play by Simon McBurney and London's Theatre Complicite, does in fact tackle these issues, and in a uniquely theatrical way.

But then, McBurney likes to confront difficult subjects in his theater work. Like a lot of people, he's scared by mathematics -- which is why, he says, "I wanted to create a show in which mathematics was absolutely at the center of it."

It took a while, though. He got the idea for A Disappearing Number more than a decade ago, when a friend handed him A Mathematician's Apology, a book by the long-dead Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy. His friend said the book fascinated him because of how Hardy told the reader that mathematical imagination and mathematical creativity are the same as any other artistic endeavor.

"I was, at once, hooked," McBurney says.

Mathematical Illuminations

Ruth: But as G.H. Hardy said, "a mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. And just as in poetry and painting, the mathematician's patterns must be beautiful. Beauty is the first test," he said. "There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics."

In A Disappearing Number, McBurney weaves together several plot strands to illuminate the beauty and the patterns -- the mystery -- of mathematics. He looks at the true story of a young genius named Srinivasa Ramanujan, who left his village in India to work with Hardy in Cambridge during World War I. Ramanujan came up with formulas that are now the basis of string theory -- ideas physicists use to help explain the connection between the biggest and smallest elements of the universe.

McBurney intercuts that story with a contemporary one, about a math professor named Ruth and her husband, Al, an Indian-born but thoroughly American futures trader.

"What I wanted to try and make present on the stage was a kind of emotional charge [that] comes directly through the work and through the numbers," McBurney says, "just as it comes through the relationship and the human warmth between these people."

In one scene, Ruth tries to explain a particularly knotty concept to Al, who is busy and frustrated. She asks him to imagine two lines stretching away forever, always getting closer but never touching -- though theoretically, she says, "those two lines do actually meet ... in infinity. The impossible is possible."

"And if you can see the beauty in the idea of two lines never, never, never meeting," McBurney says -- "in other words, [in the idea of] there never being an end to something -- if you can hold that thought in suspension, then somewhere, I think you touch on the beauty of the fabric of the nature of our lives."

Stringing It Together

The storytelling fabric couldn't be much more complex. McBurney links Ramanujan's feeling of being a stranger in a strange land to Indians currently working in call centers or as domestics in the U.K. And he sets it all in a multimedia environment, where the actors, a live percussionist and a pair of dancers are enveloped in almost continuous video and audio tracks.

"Simon somehow manages to make really abstract ideas become intensely human," says Nigel Redden, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Festival. The organization is presenting the limited New York run of A Disappearing Number, which begins July 15.

Redden says McBurney has a knack for sparking the ideas of infinity and string theory to life.

"What he does -- and he does this remarkably theatrically -- is he weaves all the stories together," Redden says. "So you realize how close we are to each other, and somehow [he] makes that a very moving and kind of visceral epiphany."

A high-definition video version of A Disappearing Number screens in select movie theaters starting in October as part of the National Theatre's NT Live series. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.