Simon McBurney,co-founder of acclaimed British theatre group Complicite,draws parallels between maths and migration in his award-winning play A Disappearing Number.
You can either love it or hate it. But you cant ignore it. This adage seems befitting for maths,a subject that all of us have studied in school. But never once have we felt that this seemingly complicated topic is also an art form that can be used to evoke a lot of emotions within us. Acclaimed British theatre group Complicites award-winning play A Disappearing Number,that was staged recently in Mumbai,manages to achieve this feat effortlessly. Directed by Simon McBurney,who is also one of the founders of Complicite,the play explores the mysterious and romantic mathematical collaboration between our mathematical genius Srinivas Ramanujan and his English counterpart and mentor G H Hardy.
McBurney,who found maths incomprehensible as a child,was first intrigued by the subject after he read Hardys essay A Mathematicians Apology,on the recommendation of his friend and Booker Prize winner poet Michael Ondaatje. The director read the introduction written by C P Snow which gave a brief account of the collaboration between Hardy and Ramanujan and the opening statement left an indelible impact on his mind. It stated that a mathematician is like a poet or painter who makes patterns with ideas. It was absolutely intriguing. It spoke about mathematical and artistic imagination. I was never fond of maths but I started thinking about this subject. I began reading the history of maths and how it played a significant role in the ancient Indian culture, he says.
The director soon realised that the collaboration between Hardy and Ramanujan was the perfect base for a play. He visited Chennai where Ramanujan was born and met people who could tell him about the genius. He also undertook a pilgrimage to Namakkal as Ramanujan had sought inspiration from his family goddess Namagiri of Namakkal and had the vision to go to the United Kingdom after she appeared in his dream.
As McBurney started conceptualising the play,he wasnt quite sure how it would turn out. When I started off,I was not sure what form this play will take. We didnt have a bound script,we improvised along the way. But A Disappearing Number was an extraordinarily difficult and complex piece, McBurney confesses. He admits that the purpose of the play is to bend the minds of audiences and move their hearts. My objective was to see more to the story rather than just a collaboration of two mathematicians working on a subject, he says.
The director decided to incorporate two major factors to make this play contemporary and emotionally connect with the audiences. Firstly,he included live tabla and secondly,he introduced two strands of narrative. He interwove the passionate intellectual relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan,with the present-day story of a globe-trotting Indian-American businessman and his maths lecturer partner. I discussed with Indian composer Nitin Sawhney how music and maths are similar as both of them are based on a certain rhythmic pattern. We did workshops and tried to explore mathematical patterns and music in A Disappearing Number. The music brings the play alive. As for the dual narratives,I believe that every work of art has windows. The past and present co-exist in this play, he elaborates.
The performance explores the theme of exile as Ramanujan experiences such a feeling during his stint at Cambridge. The Indian diaspora that is spread across the globe has to battle the idea of exile everyday. I wanted everyone to feel their pain,trauma and identity crisis, McBurney says.
The director decided to use this theme as a team-building exercise between his cast which mostly comprises Indians born in the United Kingdom. David Annen,who has been playing Hardy since three years,says,Most of the cast members hail from different countries but are now settled in the UK. I am half Irish and half Swiss. When we started our rehearsals,McBurney asked each of us to narrate our childhood memories and enact the journey of our ancestors from their respective countries to England. This led to a meaningful intimacy between all of us.
McBurney also admits that in the last three years,the play has undergone several reincarnations. He started acting in it initially as he couldnt find actors. But as he began understanding the play,he decided to step out incorporated a lot of changes. I have changed every performance. I always incorporate new scenes and delete old scenes. I believe that we always need to ask questions in order to keep our interest alive.
Shane Shambhu,an Indian born in England and a trained Bharatnatyam dancer,plays Ramanujan in the project. Initially,I had to enact the Indian genius mental state through dance movements. Later,McBurney offered me Ramanujans role. I prepared for it by reading The Man Who Knew Infinity,Ramanujans biography and the letters that he wrote to Hardy. I also started drawing elements from my own life, says Shambhu.
The biggest challenge for the performer was to keep up with the various changes in the play. Since the project was constantly changing,I had to challenge myself. Just when I would get a little comfortable,McBurney would go ahead and incorporate some new changes. The biggest challenge was that initially I was playing an emotional state but now Im also playing the physical being. So I had to strike a balance between both the identities, adds Shambhu.
After directing a complex piece like A Disappearing Number,one might think McBurney is resting on his laurels. But the director,who is a great fan of Indian playwright and director Habib Tanvir and admired the work of his group Naya Theatre,says,I try not to look back. I have no specific ambition in life. I try to be true to myself.