A Disappearing Number is the latest production from Complicité, one of Britain’s most innovative and original theatre companies. It has drawn attention thanks to its unusual subject matter – mathematics and its relationship to reality, beauty and human creativity.
The play explores these themes by interweaving a variety of stories, but the main thread focuses on the strange story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Ramanujan was working in Madras as a clerk in 1912 when he sent a letter to the famed Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy containing some theorems he had discovered. Hardy was startled by the unconventional brilliance of Ramanujan’s work and summoned him to Cambridge to study.
Unfortunately Ramanujan did not take to life in Britain and soon fell ill. He died in 1919 at the age of 32, leaving a mysterious legacy of some 3,900 equations.
A Disappearing Number deals with Ramanujan’s life deftly and sensitively. It even manages to convey something of the beauty and power of his work – especially through Nitin Sawhney’s music.
But the play also touches on political issues such as globalisation and the relationship of India to the Western world. Ramanujan’s ill-fated encounter with the West is juxtaposed to a modern tale of India in a world of call centres and international finance.
In the process we are shown how “globalisation” is not quite as new as we might like to think. India and Indians, in particular, have had their lives transformed and torn apart by the global economy for hundreds of years.
This production provides plenty of food for thought on all sorts of issues – as well as being an exhilarating and intricate spectacle to watch in its own right. Do try and catch it if you get the chance.
A Disappearing Number
Barbican Theatre, central London
until 6 October