Last night I went to see a live relay of Simon McBurnie’s A Disappearing Number in our local cinema, largely prompted by Miranda Cook (who plays Dorothy in Hidden Glory) enthusing about its recent London performance. I missed the Complicité production when it originally opened in 2007: having won numerous awards it’s been all over the world before its final tour in the UK this year.
I thought it was one of the best things I’d seen for ages. I loved Saskia Reeves’s performance – I saw some similiarities between the characters of Ruth and Dorothy Hodgkin, the combination of slight social diffidence with absolute command of and love for her subject, plus incredulous delight at falling in love, and using laughter to cover nervousness, embarrassment or even pain.
I thought the staging was breathtaking, creating so many moods and spaces with such economy. And I was surprised at how few people came on for the curtain call – somehow it felt like a much larger cast.
The story of Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematical genius who came to Cambridge in 1914 to work with G.H. Hardy, is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Interweaving the historical narrative with modern characters was much more than a device, as McBurnie created moving parallels of love and loss as well as a means of explaining the maths in simple terms. I thought his courage in including complex content with quite a lot of exposition paid off, and not just because the performers were excellent.
I am lost in admiration at the way he wove together the themes of continuity and connection (the way he exploits the dramatic possibilities of the telephone is masterly) , in a way that made the endings seem optimistic rather than tragic. The use of music (by Nitin Sawhney, dance and video gave physicality to an otherwise intellectual theme and increased the emotional impact.
I gather this was the last performance of the current run, but who knows when anyone might think of reviving it, so I’m so glad to have grabbed the last chance to see it.