The greatest theorem ever told

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In a world of zeroes and infinities, where does one find unity and love? Certainly not in a lecture hall where mathematicians try to map the mystical dance of numbers behind string theory. This is no place for creativity and romance. Or is it?

A lecture hall is the setting in the opening scene of the British theater company Complicite's award-winning original play, A Disappearing Number. This year, the production earned the Laurence Olivier Award, the British equivalent of a Tony, for best new play, and just finished a very successful run at the Barbican in London. The multimedia whirlwind of science, love, loss, genius and hallucination proves it's anything but sterile and academic when it gets its United States premiere this week, thanks to University Musical Society, in an exclusive engagement at Ann Arbor's Power Center. Audiences can expect a flickering kaleidoscope of ideas and eras, more a view through the windshield of a time machine than a linear narrative about math.

Based on the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan — one of the most romantic figures in the history of mathematics — A Disappearing Number manages to pay tribute to the untutored Indian genius while bringing to life the mysteries of his work, which did in fact find applications in string theory. His life story is a compelling one that has inspired novels, a biography, film and theater.

Just before World War I, Ramanujan, who was living in poverty in India and eager for recognition, sent some of his theorems and formulas to the English mathematician G.H. Hardy. Struck by the skill and originality in the papers, Hardy wrote back to Ramanujan and insisted on seeing more. In 1913, Hardy sent a colleague to collect Ramanujan and bring him to Cambridge. During his stay, Ramanujan suffered from depression and attempted suicide. Ailing from vitamin deficiencies and stress, he returned to India and died of an intestinal infection at the age of 32.

A Disappearing Number follows the relationship between the two mathematicians, but it also plays that history against the modern-day tale of a traveling American businessman named Al Cooper, a sensitive lost soul whose world is shaken when he falls in love with an English mathematician named Ruth. In many ways Cooper's character mirrors Ramanujan. Although he's no mathematician, Cooper is obsessed with the impossible equations of his own existence. In one scene, he finds himself locked in the lecture hall after hours. In much the same way, Ramanujan seemed trapped by his obsession with math, which compelled him to travel to England where he would fulfill his destiny and experience the physical decline that led to his death.

Firdous Bamji plays Cooper in this, his first performance with Complicite, the reputable 25-year-old company. Bamji was born in Bombay and raised in both Bahrain and South Carolina. He now lives in London and New York City and has appeared in plays by Eric Bogosian, Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner. He's also had roles on the TV series Law & Order and in such major big-screen productions as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Analyze That.

The actor says he fell in love with the story of Ramanujan and Hardy nearly a decade ago when a friend gave him a copy of Robert Kanigel's 1991 biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity. It inspired Bamji so much that he immersed himself in research and began writing a screenplay, which is finished but still stored on his computer. So when Simon McBurney, Complicite's artistic director, approached Bamji and asked him to be help devise and take a role in A Disappearing Number, it was almost magical. McBurney had learned about Ramanujan through the author Michael Ondaatje, who suggested he read Hardy's memoir, A Mathematician's Apology. It's a glorious and sad book that extols the power of intuition and imagination in the precise and scientific field of mathematics.

"I had never met anyone else who knew the story," Bamji says, over the phone from London. "Then Simon came along and it was exactly as it should be. I quickly realized when we started working that the best place to embody the mathematical and cross-cultural ideas in the story was on stage."

In addition to the dramatic energy and the immediacy of live theater, this particular production offers some powerful elements. In the center of the stage, there's a large rotating chalkboard. The board serves as a visual aid for lectures but also as a screen for video projection and as a door into darkness, a portal into nonexistence like a black hole in space. From time to time, characters step behind it into the abyss.

"These revolving chalkboards, we'd sort of play with them," Bamji says. "Simon had us going in and out of them. This play is very much about death and the afterlife and what that means."

The play posits Ramanujan's mathematical patterns as reflections of the human spirit and the drive to comprehend the mysteries of the physical world in a deeper way. But it's also beautiful in the portrayal of equations and numbers as if they were characters themselves. Of course, a big zero does not appear on the stage. But the empty oval specter appears again and again, in the form of Cooper's loneliness, Ramanujan's death and, most poignantly, during Ruth's miscarriage. As the couple lies in bed discussing Ramanujan's math and the difficulty of finding solutions for 0 x 0, Ruth notices she's bleeding.

"When I first started playing Al, I was really perplexed," Bamji says. "I didn't know where I was in time and space. And now I have more of a sense of that. Even though it is still kind of perplexing at times."

Through its time- and space-bending scenes, A Disappearing Number shuffles the hours, days and years like a deck of cards. The story shifts back and forth from Ramanujan and Hardy to Cooper in modern times. Images of India and Cambridge float on the screen. Cooper exchanges words on a cell phone with a call center worker in India. The stage falls black as an imaginary airplane flies overhead. It's a swirling matrix in which the characters' lives move like math. Their experience is not historic but algebraic — it's nonlinear, as time and people move around and are reordered like numbers in a math problem. And, just as in mathematics, sometimes questions in life remain unanswered.

A Disappearing Number is at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 10, through Saturday, Sept. 13, and at 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13, and Sunday, Sept. 14, at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor; call 734-764-2538 or visit for tickets. A meet-and-greet with the cast and crew takes place Thursday, Sept. 11, post-performance.

Norene Cashen is a freelance writer and poet whose most recent book is The Reverse Is also True. Send comments to [email protected]
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