[FoRK] A Disappearing Number

Rohit Khare khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Tue Jul 20 09:11:12 PDT 2010

A wonderful play we missed in NYC this weekend, best play from London in 2007 about Ramanujan. Good news? It’s coming to Mumbai next month (8/9-11) :)

> Did you miss Complicite's acclaimed production of A DISAPPERARING NUMBER at Lincoln Center Festival this weekend?
> Fear not, on October 14, 2010 the National Theatre's NT Live will kick off Season Two with a live broadcast of A Disappearing Number from the stage of the Plymouth Theatre Royal.
> NT Live will broadcast A Disappearing Number, directed by Simon McBurney, to cinemas across the globe. A Disappearing Number has received the Olivier Award for Best New Play (2008), the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play (2007) and The Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play (2007).

No local theaters listed yet, so track the NT Live events pages such as http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/57819/venues-amp-booking/us-venues-for-the-broadcast-of-london-assurance.html

— Rohit


July 17, 2010
Human (and Mathematical) Equations

Zeroes, ones, twos and threes glide and slide, shimmy and leap before your eyes in the quietly mesmerizing play “A Disappearing Number,” a production from the British company Complicitethat plays through Sunday as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The familiar little digits we use for all sorts of mundane purposes, like marking time and counting money, slowly begin to acquire talismanic power as they swim across the video screens onstage or blink from a clock in the corner.

They get inside your head too. By the conclusion of this engrossing inquiry into the beauty of mathematics and the equations that bind human destinies, even the most casual numerical series — your phone number, say, or that cabby’s ID — may begin to take on mystical significance.

Don’t worry about bringing scratch paper and a No. 2 pencil. Math-phobes need have no fear that the play will feel like a statistics lecture or an evening of enforced Sudoku. Sure, there is some daunting talk of string theory and convergent series and the cosine of half pi Z, not to mention the varieties of infinity.

But “A Disappearing Number,” which is conceived and directed by Simon McBurney, and which snapped up all the major new-play awards in London when it was first produced in 2007, is lucid, dynamic and continuously engaging. It’s not fundamentally about numbers, either, but about the search for meaning and the consoling satisfaction of finding the patterns that define and describe both the physical universe and individual human lives.

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy (David Annen), a central character in the play, put it succinctly in his book “A Mathematician’s Apology,” which is quoted from repeatedly. “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns,” he wrote. “And beauty is the first test.”

Ruth Minnen (an enchanting Saskia Reeves), the fictional math professor in the play, kicks things off by scribbling a fantastical series of numbers on a big dry eraser board at the center of the set. She invokes those words of Hardy, one of her heroes, in inviting us to see how these two seemingly baffling series of numbers are related.

“Look at this in a new way,” she earnestly urges, “and a hidden pattern emerges which connects the two sides of the equation in the most extraordinarily beautiful way.”

“A Disappearing Number” itself puts before us two human equations whose interconnections are gradually teased out and clarified across an intermissionless two hours. As usual, Mr. McBurney avoids linear storytelling, creating instead more complicated spatial and temporal patterns, refracting the narrative to mirror the complex ideas being discussed.

The production, designed by Michael Levine, blends film and video projections (by Sven Ortel), music (by Nitin Sawhney) and Indian dance to collate in vivid theatrical terms a contemporary tale and a historical one. Despite the leaps back and forth in time, and the crisp splicing together of scenes set in disparate places, the production unfolds with the seamless fluidity of one of those electronic stock tickers that smoothly spins out the numbers that glare from buildings in Times Square.

In one of the two central relationships, Ruth, who teaches at a British university, becomes involved with an American hedge fund manager from Los Angeles, Al Cooper (Firdous Bamji). Al casually steps into one of Ruth’s lectures and becomes bewitched and haunted by the notion that there is “an infinity of infinities,” as Ruth puts it. We learn early on that their happy union has been severed by tragedy, but the lineaments of their relationship only gradually form into a clear pattern.

This fairly conventional love story is contrasted with the intellectual passion shared by Hardy and the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu), whom Hardy wistfully describes in a 1936 Harvard lecture as “the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics.” The story of his career is indeed remarkable, and among the chief pleasures of the play is its sympathetic exploration of his personal odyssey.

Ramanujan was a humble clerk making all of £20 a year in India in 1913 when he sent a letter to Hardy, already a renowned mathematics lecturer at Cambridge, which contained an astonishing series of theorems that revealed him to be a potential genius. Hardy invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge so they could work together, and their seven-year collaboration would lead to discoveries on the part of Ramanujan that would prove fundamental to the development of string theory decades later.

These parallel histories are linked by the show’s narrator of sorts, a physicist named Aninda Rao (Paul Bhattacharjee). A genial fellow who specializes in string theory and also reveres Ramanujan, Aninda will encounter Al when they find themselves on the same plane to India, both searching for a final accounting of the life of a loved one.

The bright intellectual sheen of “A Disappearing Number” is softened, and the play’s dramatic thrust is enhanced, by the excellence of the acting ensemble. Each performer creates a precise, individual and rounded portrait of these quasi eggheads. There are similarly fine contributions from Divya Kasturi and Chetna Pandya in smaller roles. (Ms. Pandya has a funny voiceover role as a chirpy phone company call-center worker who exasperates Al when he tries to have his wife’s phone number switched to his.)

There are perhaps a few stray ideas in the play that are never cogently explored. At one point we get a blast of statistics about the disappearance of honey bees in America that doesn’t seem to connect with anything else. But for the most part the production evokes and exemplifies the pleasure of discovering the vital connections between theory and reality, past and present, and the lives of human beings separated by time, space or the brutal fact of tragedy.

“All beautiful theorems require a very high degree of economy, unexpectedness and inevitability,” the string-theory specialist Aninda tells us after elucidating one of Ramanujan’s formulas. That’s not a bad recipe for beautiful theater either, and it is one that Mr. McBurney’s scintillating drama, strongly seasoned as it is with numbers, fulfills to the letter.

A Disappearing Number

Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney; devised by the Company; partly inspired by G. H. Hardy’s book “A Mathematician’s Apology”; music by Nitin Sawhney; design by Michael Levine; lighting by Paul Anderson; sound by Christopher Shutt; projections by Sven Ortel; costumes by Christina Cunningham; associate director, Douglas Rintoul; production manager, Jamie Maisey; produced by Judith Dimant. A Complicite production, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden, director. At the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center; (212) 721-6500. Through Sunday. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

WITH: David Annen (G. H. Hardy), Firdous Bamji (Al Cooper), Paul Bhattacharjee (Aninda Rao), Hiren Chate (Tabla Player), Divya Kasturi (Mother/University Cleaner/Dancer), Chetna Pandya (Surita Bhogaita/Barbara Jones), Saskia Reeves (Ruth Minnen) and Shane Shambhu (Srinivasa Ramanujan/Dancer).

Why are Mumbai's theatre actors doing 2+2?
By: Aditi Sharma
Date:  2010-07-11

When Simon McBurney wrote a play on Indian math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, he got the theatre fraternity across the world excited about the dreaded subject. As the play comes to India, Prithvi Theatre gears up to celebrate math for an entire month 

Sanjna Kapoor, director of Prithvi Theatre, has been on a chase for the last two years. Her mission: to get UK-based theatre company Complicite's A Disappearing Number to cross the seas. In the meanwhile, Prithvi has built a relationship with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and even the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). 

McBurney's play, based on mathematician GH Hardy, seeks to comprehend the ideas mooted by math wizard Srinivasa Ramanujan in the chilly English surroundings of Cambridge during World War I.  

A Disappearing Number has been instrumental in changing a theatre space in the city. It got Kapoor so interested in the subject, she decided to open up Prithvi's hallowed confines to specialists from science. 

Through the events planned for Maths Month With Prithvi, Kapoor promises to change the way you view the subject forever. 

Sanjna Kapoor opens up the hallowed confines of Prithvi Theatre to the 
magic of math. Pic/Nimesh Dave

Science and art don't exactly marry well. What made Prithvi connect with math?
It happened when I saw A Disappearing Number, and read Ramanujan's biography and GH Hardy's book. Hardy talks of how mathematics is a creative process, and why pure math is not a utilitarian science. It's not out there to create a better digital process for computers or to drum up the string theory. These are just by-products.

Ramanujan's theorems are used in string theory but that's not what he had aimed to do. He just wanted to achieve a thought that was completely new and original. I see a connect between that thought and the role of the arts. 

The arts are not utilitarian either: they don't help earn you brownie points or fatten your bank balance. They are there for sheer sensorial delight.

But math is an intimidating subject for most people, especially those connected to the arts.
Sure, it is. We sort of dumb down when it comes to mathematics. Perhaps it's because of the stress associated with the subject, and because it's taught so horrendously in schools. We undervalue the subject and our capability to engage with it. But when math becomes palpable, it becomes interesting.

For instance, in the beginning of the play, a professor comes on stage and starts writing equations on a whiteboard. The audience responds with nervous murmurs: "Are we going to get this play?" 

But as she goes on, you sense that you are getting what she is explaining, and then you think, "Oh God, I'm not such an idiot after all!"

Why create an entire month of activities around the subject?
We strive to give audiences the most professional experience we can, but with a warmth that makes them feel part of a theatre family that cares. So, we try and transform spaces where special events are organised. It's then that the experience becomes part of audience memory and stays with them for a long, long time.

How much does it have to do with Prithvi's association with MIT and TIFR?
MIT has made the choice to incorporate arts into its fold. Their drama department is like any professional drama department, except it doesn't churn out dramatists. If we are to create a great physicist or mathematician out of a young mind, that mind needs a hardcore experience of the arts. That's what they believe.

Prithvi has become a regular venue for the Chai and Why sessions conducted by TIFR's outreach team. If they had spoken about an association eight years ago, I would've said, "No, Prithvi is a space exclusively for theatre." But the more we are building partnership programmes with PEN, Vikalp and Thespo, we are developing a hub for specialists from various fields. Chai and Why, an interactive science-based programme has received a phenomenal response. I was anxious about the format, but it's amazing how the audience asks questions, and how the scientists manage to engage them. 

Maths Month includes film screenings, performances and readings. But how does a musical performance fit in?
Oh, I'm very excited about that. Rhythm has a tremendous connect with Math. It's all numerical. I have no idea what Aneesh (Pradhan; tabla player) and Shubha (Mudgal; vocalist) are going to do, but what is great is that people are getting excited about the idea.

Even Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shernaz Patel and Rajit Kapur have agreed to participate, we hear?
Yes. In fact, when we first proposed the idea to Naseer, he fell silent. I thought, "Oh God, it's not going to work." But then he got so keyed up, he called us to say there is so much more that can be done. That's fantastic! 

Dhamaal will showcase Math-inspired performances. But we are always anxious about filling the house. We have five shows to fill, and that's a terrifying prospect.


The story of 1 (Film screening)
July 11, 11 am 
The story of the number one is the story of Western civilisation.

The truth about mathematics: Love it or hate it 
July 12, 8 pm 
Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Rajit Kapur, Shernaz Patel and others will read from GH Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, Stephen Leacock's A, B & C: The Human Element, Premchand's Bade Bhaisaab, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

The Maths Mela 
July 19 to August 5 
It travels to schools and colleges across Mumbai. An unconventional engagement with mathematics, the mela includes a math lab, film screenings, live performances, hands-on fun, and more. Open to all ” the schedule of dates and venues will be up by mid-July.

Music and Math 
August 2, 8 pm
Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan bring you a delightful evening of music and mathematics. Tickets go on sale on July 28.

Complicite's A Dissappearing Number at Jamshed Bhabha Auditorium, NCPA, Nariman Point.
August 9, 10 and 11
Tickets go on sale on July 18. All events at Prithvi, Juhu. 
Call: 26149546

Heard on Morning Edition

July 15, 2010 - RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Mathematics, string theory, infinity, call centers in India - thats now the stuff of drama.

As Jeff Lunden reports, a play by Simon McBurney and London's Theatre Complicite tackles these subjects in a uniquely theatrical way. Called "A Disappearing Number," it opens tonight in New York.

JEFF LUNDEN: Director and author Simon McBurney likes to confront difficult subjects in his theater work. He says like a lot of people he's scared by mathematics, which is why...

Mr. SIMON MCBURNEY (Director-Playwright): I wanted to create a show in which mathematics was absolutely at the center of it.

LUNDEN: But it took a while. He got the idea for "A Disappearing Number" over a decade ago, when a friend handed him a book by a long-dead Cambridge professor named G.H. Hardy, called "A Mathematician's Apology." His friend told him...

Mr. MCBURNEY: What fascinates me about this book is how he tells us that that mathematical imagination and mathematical creativity are the same as any other artistic endeavor. I was at once hooked.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

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

LUNDEN: In "A Disappearing Number," McBurney weaves together several plot strands to illuminate the beauty, patterns and mystery of mathematics. He looks at the true story of a young genius named Ramanujan, who left his poor 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. Physicists use string theory 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, an Indian-born but thoroughly American futures trader named Al.

Mr. MCBURNEY: What I wanted to try and make present on the stage was a kind of emotional charge, which also comes directly through the work and through the numbers, just as it comes through the relationship and the human warmth between these people.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as Al) Oh, for goodness sake, Ruthie.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) No, listen. Al, imagine two lines that shoot off into infinity forever...

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) Ruth, I got to go.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) No, look. Well, listen. Al, imagine those two lines do actually meet...

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) Right.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) ...in infinity...

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) What are you talking about?

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) Well, Im, I'm, I'm saying the impossible is possible. Thats all. Now run.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) I haven't understood anything youve said. But Im feeling hopeful.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) Well, you should. One plus a half, plus a quarter, an eighth...

Mr. MCBURNEY: And if you can see the beauty in the idea of two lines never, never, never meeting, in other words 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.

LUNDEN: The storytelling fabric couldn't be more complex. Simon McBurney links Ramanujan's feeling of being a stranger in a strange land to Indians currently working in call centers, or as maids 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.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Man #2: One.

Unidentified Man #3: Ideas...

Unidentified Man #2: Two.

Unidentified Man #3: ...like all human needs...

Unidentified Man #2: Four.

Unidentified Man #3: ...food...

Unidentified Man #2: Five.

Unidentified Man #3: ...sleep...

Unidentified Man #2: Six.

Unidentified Man #3: ...warmth...

Unidentified Man #2: Seven. Eight.

Unidentified Man #3: ...require a search...

Unidentified Man #2: Nine. Ten.

Unidentified Man #3: ...a going elsewhere.

Unidentified Man #2: Eleven. Twelve.

Unidentified Man #3: In our imagines...

Unidentified Man #2: Thirteen. Fourteen...

Unidentified Man #3: ...we leave the immediately present, the center of the circle. And when we do so, we begin to count.

Unidentified People: (Unintelligible)

Mr. NIGEL REDDEN (Artistic Director, Lincoln Center Festival): Simon somehow manages to make really abstract ideas become intensely human.

LUNDEN: Nigel Redden is artistic director of the Lincoln Center Festival, which is presenting "A Disappearing Number." He says McBurney makes the ideas of infinity and string theory come to life.

Mr. REDDEN: And what he does, and he does this remarkably theatrically, is he weaves all the stories together so you realize how close we are to each other, and somehow makes that a very moving and kind of visceral epiphany.

LUNDEN: Towards the end of the play, Al and Aninder, a physicist whove met purely by chance on a plane to India, stand at the banks of a river. It's where mathematician Ramanujan died, far too young at the age of 32. Both men are carrying the ashes of loved ones.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as Aninder) Now Im going to put her in the river and say my last words to her. Oh, really, Im always talking to her.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) On the other side of infinity, thats a barrier I can't get over. Everything makes sense but that. When you're gone, you're gone forever.

Unidentified Man #4: (as Aninder) Why not think of it like this, hmm? The numbers in infinity go on forever in all directions. But there are no gaps between the numbers, like there are no gaps in time or space - they are continuous.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) Continuous.

Unidentified Man #4: (as Aninder) And if time is continuous, then we are linked to the past and future. And if space is continuous, we are linked to the absent.

LUNDEN: The characters and ideas in "A Disappearing Number" will only be present for five performances at the Lincoln Center Festival, starting tonight. But the play will be shown in high-definition broadcasts at movie theaters throughout the U.S. this October.

For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.


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