189: A Disappearing Number

11 Dec

Complicite is one of my favourite companies – a large call when I’ve only seen one of their works, but that one was probably the greatest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen and it changed my view of what theatre could be, so I’m making this rather bold call. I’m also popping in a youtube montage of their productions here, so that you can get a feel for what the company does.


There is no author cited on their playscript for A Disappearing Number – instead the company is listed as the author as they devised the show together, the way they do with much of their work. A telling note on the text before you start reading the play itself states that:

A Disappearing Number is a play whose fluidity and use of video, movement, music and sound design, in addition to text, make it largely resistant to attempts to capture and pin down in traditional script form.

There is an attempt to conjure the shifting screens, images, movement and music that are integral to any production, but, as a reader, you have to know that you are reading the bare bones of the story and that you’re missing much of the flesh. Fortunately the bones are captivating and had me mesmerised.

A Disappearing Number is a play about the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (an impoverished clerk in India) and his relationship with a Cambridge mathematician Godfrey Harold. Harold was the first person to read Ramanujan’s theorems and not dismiss them as the work of a madman. It is also a play about a contemporary mathematician, Ruth, and her passion for numbers and the way that passion affects her other relationships. Stories weave and split, time shifts between the early 20th century and now, and much of the action takes place in a lecture theatre.

It sounds as if it could be dull – but even on the page it is anything but. For someone whose eyes glaze over at the mention of equations and formulas, the first few pages of a lecture where Ruth explains the Functional Equation of the Riemann Zeta Function should have had me abandoning the play mid paragraph, but I was hooked from the start.

A Disappearing Number is exciting and mind expanding. Numbers started to appear beautiful – even on the page. It’s one of those tantalising experiences where you begin to feel as if something hitherto unimaginable is almost in your grasp.

RUTH: […] Everywhere the number 24. This is an example of what mathematicians call a magic number. Numbers that continually appear where we least expect them for reasons that no one can understand. And I don’t understand, but they’re beautiful…

AL: How can something you don’t understand be beautiful?

RUTH: Don’t we call something ‘beautiful’ simply because it outpaces us? Imagine we’re on a line. Ramanujan way ahead with Brahmagupta, who invented zero, and me, I’m far behind, if I look over my shoulder I see you.

It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty but that is true of beauty of any kind. We may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognising one when we read it.

A Disappearing Number is a truly beautiful play. Apparently the company revived it in 2010. Now I can just hope for Brisbane Festival to bring it here so that all of us can experience it in production…

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