A Disappearing Number

Published October 16, 2008

Winner of the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, Complicite’s A Disappearing Number returns to London for a run at the Barbican theatre. Charlotte Marshall was in the first night audience.

A play that promises to portray the romance and beauty of mathematics is always going to be a confusing concept to many. However, A Disappearing Number succeeds where thousands wouldn’t. Taking the relationship between mathematicians G.H Hardy and Rumanujan as the foundation for the story, Complicite’s production shows the true romance that can lie within the numbers whose existence we take for granted.

A Disappearing Number entangles two very different love stories from two different times. In present day London, an American man is falling in love with a lecturer, Ruth. Her first love is mathematics and the relentless desire to understand the numbers she views as a beautiful mystery, in order that she might better deal with the universe. He is lost in a sea of travel; the only place he will not return to is India, where his past and heritage lies. In 1914, Cambridge mathematician G. H Hardy comes across the work of an Indian man, Rumanujan, who has discovered an extraordinary mathematical truth and has the ability to change the thinking of hundreds of years of academic thinking.

As Rumanujan travels from India to Cambridge, Ruth makes a life-changing journey to India to find inspiration from the place where the relationship between her heroes began. In their separate existences, both Rumanujan and Ruth realise that if there is no gap between space, numbers and time, they are each inextricably linked to everything – past, future or present – and the concept of infinity can hold no fear.

Complicite uses various different media to take the audience from a cold lecture hall at Brunel University to the hot, chaotic streets of Bombay. Stories are told through shadows reflected against vast projections of Cambridge libraries and India’s sacred rivers, as voiceovers chant numbers until the audience is infiltrated with this most basic of mantras.

At the very beginning of the play the audience is asked to pick a number, subtract 5 from it, multiply the result by 2, add 8, divide by 2, then subtract their original number and add 8. For those not convinced by the idea of mathematics as a beautiful mystery, this simple number trick leaves every member of the audience with not only 7, but a sense of magic and intrigue which helps to further understand the great romance that unfolds, founded on an obsession for these numbers we barely ever consider.

Like the numbers they explore, there are running parallels between the lives of the characters, who are pulled together and pushed apart until the final moments when, in keeping with the concept of infinity, they are inevitably drawn together.