Complicité are perhaps The “experimental” theatre company par excellence. Advance ticket sales for their new show A Disappearing Number at the Barbican have been impressive to say the least. It is one of many signs that Britain has a far healthier theatrical culture than often suggested - a fact to be celebrated. As such, Complicité are essentially review-proof. Whatever anyone says, they now have such momentum that they will continue to sell out their shows on the basis that they are required viewing for anyone with an interest in theatre.
I came to the company slightly late. I didn’t get to see Street of Crocodiles, starting instead with Mnemonic in ‘99, which I found impressive, even if the overall thing left me a bit lukewarm. I liked The Elephant Vanishes more, although it didn’t raise strong feelings. So why did this latest show leave me so cold, disappointed - slightly cross, even?
The reason is that Complicité have got where they are today by being innovators. When they started it is my impression that they were among the first to bring the techniques taught at the Lecoq school to the British stage - and with an English flavour added to this continental sensibility. One of their first shows won the second ever Perrier Award, which - lest we forget - is awarded for comedy, not theatrical innovation. The fact that their show won it rather says all that needs saying about how funny it must have been. Subsequently, the company was talked about in reverential tones throughout university days. Street of Crocodiles seems to have inspired more artists working in theatre today than Look Back in Anger ever did.
Simon McBurney is probably one of the most influential theatre-makers of the past quarter century. Ideas which he pioneered now crop up in theatres across the country time and time again. And this is part of the problem. Because they’ve been around so long, and have been inspiring people for so long, it feels like they have been eclipsed. Those innovations which they brought to the stage have now become part of the new orthodoxy. In Edinburgh this year you could barely move for Lecoq and Gaulier-trained companies. When Mnemonic opened, their use of video projection looked pretty advanced and sophisticated. Now any student company with the time and inclination can edit together some hugely impressive multi-media wizardry on their laptops and beam it at their plays using the data projectors that have become de rigueur in even the lowliest fringe spaces. Similarly, their use of physical theatre and movement has spawned an aesthetic which is applied, sometimes almost without thought, to all but the most naturalistic productions of any play you care to think of.
None of this is Complicité’s fault, of course, and it would be churlish to hold it against them. After all, if one’s stack of laurels is that big, resting on them must be pretty darn comfy. Yes, it is a shame that the excitement of waiting for a new Complicité show, once like getting dispatches from the front-line of theatrical thinking, has been replaced by a dull feeling of aesthetic inevitability - we all know what a Complicité show is going to be like before we go in these days - but that isn’t the main problem here. Funnily it’s far simpler than that. The piece is so mired in its own multi-media-ness that it just feels impossible to get close to its characters.
A Disappearing Number tells the story of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sent a letter to Cambridge professor GK Hardy offering his theory of, oh, some clever maths thing. The piece intercuts this historical narrative with a modern-day romance between a rather sweet Indian-American hedge-fund manager and a maths professor, whom he marries and who then dies.
At the start of the show the maths professor begins to delivery a lecture to the audience in the theatre. It is a lovely bit of direct-audience address, which displays an admirable self-awareness of precisely how far over everyone’s heads the maths is going. It is very funny and clever. Then another actor comes out, and explains that he is an actor. He acknowledges that the set is a set, pushes it around, and demonstrates that the maths professor’s glasses don’t even have lenses (why not? They could have glass in them - still, no matter). It is all looking hugely promising: we are entertained, involved, seduced. Then there is a rush of sound effect and a projection of an Indian street and all this contact is lost for pretty much the rest of the show. Suddenly the actors seem to become subsumed by this welter of video projection and recorded sound.
As Andrew Field has already noted, I wrote about this very idea of intrusive, fixed technological elements in a recent blog entry. I would like to make it quite clear that this issue is not a matter of doctrine for me. There is nothing worse than someone writing off a piece of theatre because it does not fulfil some wholly external criteria which they bring to it. I have thought hard about this and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’ve done. Even though A Disappearing Number did seem to confirm a number of the things which concerned me in that previous article. Most significantly was the way that the actors seems entirely dwarfed by the scale of the projects. Occasionally when the actors were standing as if within a film sequence it was a nice trick, and effective - but never more than that. More frequently the films seemed to provide nothing more than attractive moving wallpaper. Then there was the nature of the projected material - picture postcard views of Indian streets and Trinity Cambridge, rippling water and numbers falling like snow (or like they do in The Matrix screensaver on your PC circa ‘03). This is not beautiful; it is simply pretty - like the pictures that fill the frames sold in Ikea - much less sublime.
Beyond the actual nature of the images themselves was the fact of their being projected. I shall try not to dwell too much on comparisons between these films and the projected images used to such astonishing effect in Waves and Attempts on Her Life. Suffice it to say that once one has seen the images that are projected being made live, it seems like several steps back to simply pre-record. Especially given the speech at the beginning that draws our attention to the artifice of the theatre. It is as if McBurney views film with rather more reverence. And it was the irreverence of his approach to theatre that was part of the initial brilliance, wasn’t it?
Elsewhere in the play, a significant section of plot finds the hedge fund manager spending a night trapped in the lecture theatre, while trying to transfer his late wife’s phone number into his own name. To this end, he speaks to an Indian call centre operator. These conversations are clearly intended as broad comedy, and I wondered if the fact of their being (presumably) recorded had impacted on that. I didn’t find them especially funny anyway, although I’m happy to record that much of the audience did, in much the same way as people are still laughing at “Not even for ready money” in The Importance of Being Earnest - theatre often has a strange way of making audiences laugh because they know something is a joke, rather than because it is funny. [I’m afraid from the seat that I was in, there are any number of details which might have passed me by, since a proportion of the stage simply wasn’t visible - so if he was in fact talking to an actor wearing a mic at the back of the stage, I wouldn’t have known.]
There were other troublesome elements too. The piece seemed to quickly resolve itself into what was effectively a cavalcade of scene changes. It felt as if hardly any scene really had a chance to really get going before it was cut off. As a result, our relationship to the characters felt continually on hold, deferred. Ultimately it was this distance that really finished me off. The narratives were so slight, and the cuts between them so numerous I found it very hard to keep caring, no matter how hard I tried. So when at one stage the maths professor woman has a miscarriage, of course it was tragic, such an event always will be, but in the circumstances it felt like it had been dropped in from nowhere for no apparent reason. The sudden lighting effect that accompanied it also seemed forced. Shortly before (or after) when they brought on a little puppet child to represent the young Ramanujan rather than enchanted, I was actually irritated. It seemed wholly contrived to wring a little more wonderment out of the audience while the whole scene in which it featured meant nothing, added nothing and appeared wholly superfluous, other than to introduce a cute puppet. Similarly, the use of Nitin Sawney's music, traditional Indian dance forms and a virtually redundant live Tabla player at best added litle beyond an additional layer of multicultural goings on, but more frequently put one in mind of getting stuck in the college rooms of a stoned maths student trying to explain the world while showing his gap-year photos.
I’m sure hundreds, possibly thousands of people will love this show, and I don’t think that they shouldn’t. But for me something absolutely failed to click, and we were left with what felt like nothing more than Complicité by numbers (no pun intended).
Edit: I nearly forgot, there is a video on YouTube posted by Warwick Arts Centre promoting the show which gives a very vague idea of some of the music and projections: