Tag Archives: complicite

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…

13: The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol

3 Apr

Some productions set your mind on fire, changing the way you think and opening up all sorts of new pathways in your head. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol did that for me when I saw it in London in 1995. I bought the play script in the foyer after the show and read it a couple of times, trying to relive the magic of the production.

Book in front of T-shirt with bear.

It was interesting to come back to it now, all these years later, and read it without the incredible Theatre de Complicite staging fresh in my mind. So, first things first. This is a play based on a story by John  Berger and adapted by Complicite’s Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley over a long period of rehearsals with the team of actors and designers.

Lucie Cabrol is a peasant woman living a life of unbearable hardship. She’s small and wizened, ostracised by her village, taunted and ridiculed but she proves herself incapable of being diminished. Her first life is on her parent’s farm, her second is after she has been cast out, her third is in the afterlife, following her murder. The play is as simple and grim as a folk tale. It is also filled with laughter and joy, where you’d least expect to find it.

The scene I remember best from the production, was the one where Lucie seduces and has sex with Jean, one of the villagers. It was the most exciting, intense and theatrical thing I’ve ever seen on stage.

Here is how it is written in the script:

[Lucie] gives Jean some milk and spills it down his chest. A crash of thunder. He takes off his shirt. She wipes her hand on him and licks him. They play. He lifts her. They crash into the wall of planks. And then through them. They roll back on under the planks. The planks swing above them and drop in front of them. The planks slow to a gentle swinging motion until they make a door which, after a moment, Jean opens. Jean and Lucie go through it and sit.

What you don’t necessarily see in your mind when you read this description is that the rest of the cast are holding the huge planks. They are dancing with them, crashing them into the floor, raising them high above Lucie and Jean, creating an ecstasy of sound and movement at the same time that they create the walls of the barn, the bed and the roof.

As a written play, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol is almost Brechtian in its lack of sentimentality. I love its symbolism and heightened theatricality but I can’t quite distance myself enough from my memories of the production to see it clearly as a text.

Publisher: Methuen Drama

Cast: 5M, 2F