I had an odd experience the other day, something that has never happened to me before, and certainly something that I never thought I’d actually find myself enjoying – I started to get interested in maths. Specifically, in the laws of divergent series, where the individual sum of an infinite sequence does not approach zero (or something like that anyway – I paraphrase.)
I could hardly believe it when I found myself listening intently to the maths lecture that is the opening scene of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number during the NT Live broadcast of the play last week. I never paid much attention in maths lessons at the best of times, yet there I was, trying desperately to keep up and understand as Ruth Minnen delivered her charmingly enthusiastic guide to divergent series. There’s a great moment in the scene when a visiting professor remarks to the audience that he expects we think this is the whole play, and the audience laughs with relief at the realisation that they haven’t stumbled by accident into a university lecture hall (that Saskia Reeves might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time was an initial concern of mine, so utterly convincing was she as a warm yet eccentric maths boff).
It is a brilliant, brave start to a play: taking something that could so easily be interminably dull, overly complex or simply fill your audience with the fear of god, and making it instantly absorbing and exciting. As the play continues, complex mathematical theorems are discovered and explored. Some, intentionally, are far too complex for the lay mind to grasp, and so we just allow the rhythm of the formula wash over us, trusting that the ‘beauty’ or proof are as the experts claim; however, some theories are explained slowly, with the character of Al Cooper standing in for each and every audience member as he tries to grasp the principles at the heart of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s great life.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the play is that despite admitting that maths used to fill him with terror, Simon McBurney has managed to create a piece that celebrates mathematics and effectively communicates the passion people hold for mere numbers. Before seeing the piece I thought people, patterns of words, pictures and images were beautiful, but numbers were, well, just numbers. Now, although I don’t understand the intricate reasons why, I can at least appreciate that other, cleverer people can see a beauty in maths. It’s a long way from that last fateful GCSE exam, after which I promptly went home and burned my text books, and that someone can devise such a celebratory piece about something they previously loathed is quite inspiring.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any desire to return to those maths lessons of old, but simply that the play made me start to question something I previously cared nothing for proves, for me at least, the tremendous power that theatre can wield. Congratulations Complicite for managing to achieve what countless maths teachers failed to do!
No, the irony of writing a blog about maths, at a time when arts organisations across the country are number-crunching the impact that the spending cuts will have on them, has not been lost on me either; however, as you may have guessed, I prefer to leave maths to the experts. You can of course expect further analysis of the impact that the cuts will have on young people and the arts from A Younger Theatre as time goes on and the all-important plans and details of funding cuts become clear.