Saturday 15 September 2007

Complicité's A Disappearing Number - Barbican

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:


Ian Shuttleworth said...

I wonder whether you would have felt a similar disconnect in terms of performance if the subject had been more connectable to us arty types? In other words, that the subject of maths is the principal source of alienation, but this is being sublimated into criticisms of style? i don't know; it's just a thought.

Andrew Haydon said...

It's a fair question. But one of my most immediate points of reference in terms of what the show wasn't doing for me was what Unlimited's Ethics of Progress had done. Wildly different shows in many ways, although enough corresponding elements (science, direct-audience address, use of video throughout) to make comparisons viable. And Ethics... is theoretically the harder sell, precisely because it doesn't offer many of the identifiable comforts of Disappearing Number (relationships, love, history, pretty pictures of Cambridge, etc.), and yet was the one I connected with far more. I think I'd have been equally alienated by the Complicité show if exactly the same treatment had been applied to the life of Ken Tynan or similar.

Unknown said...

V interesting, Andrew -- I'm seeing it on Thursday, & still looking forward to it, though the response of friends has tended on the whole towards the disappointed and disgruntled. (I think you're probably at the extreme...) As one of the Streeto'crocophiles you mention, I'm sort of bound both to admire everything Complicite do in advance of seeing it and then to feel slightly underwhelmed when I do see it.

Anyway, just a couple of quick thoughts:

I think you're right about the use of pre-recorded video, though I suppose it shouldn't be any more categorically dismaying than a pre-painted backdrop: but an important part of Complicite's language in the early days was always an appeal to liveness and the constantly impending doom of the ephemeral. In a way it's simply a repackaging of naturalism: their physical language works best when we believe that they're just making it up as they go along, and their delicacy and their accuracy and their flocking techniques are organically impromptu. So obviously if you're having to keep time with what's on the big telly behind you, that's that game over. It's a pity the Complicite aesthetic has been subsumed by multimedia (if indeed it has); it made a kind of sense for Elephant Vanishes but I quite agree that the emotional reverb gets soaked up and at best you wind up with the sort of mundane, fragmentary numinousness of Laurie Anderson or Miranda July.

Secondly: it seems to me that from the start McBurney was a magpie and a keen mongreliser, rather than what you might call a conviction artist. Which is fine. But I'm not sure he's now ahead of us, as it were, he's not seeing and picking up on things that we haven't also seen. Where the early Complicite language was incredibly fresh to British and American audiences because it was so steeped in Lecoq, now the company's aesthetic is a bit behind the curve. I suppose I'm trying to find a nice way of saying that Elephant Vanishes, at least, felt like the work of a lavishly funded Lepage tribute band: and from what I hear, the same might be said of the new piece.

The boldest, most innovative thing Simon McBurney could now do as an artist, and the best thing he could do for British theatre, is take a couple of years' sabbatical. I'm sure he can't, no doubt he's committed through 2011, but I wish he could.

Anyway. Blah. I'm going on Thursday because there's a Q&A, so if anybody says anything helpful, I'll report back.

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued that you like Katie Mitchell's recent work so much when much of what you write here could most certainly be applied to, for example, her Attempts on Her Life or Waves.

Tom Wateracre said...

A very interesting view on the production, Mr H.

My parents are Complicite nuts, and took me as a kid to see Street Of Crocodiles, Lucie Cabrol, and I saw Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National which was one of the first moments I thought "I am watching important theatre". I really liked Elephant Vanishes too, although it was clear that this was now a company with a shitload of Japanese money to play with. My major "Complicite aren't perfect" moment came with their Measure For Measure at the National, which I felt had exactly that "technology subsuming characters" problem that you felt in ADN. However, this may also have been because I had been to the pre-show discussion, in which grumpy grumpy McBurney complained that the budget for Measure For Measure wasn't as much as they had been given in Japan, and that put me in an ingracious mood.

When we saw A Disappearing Number, it sounds like we were sitting in the same seats as you - very very very high up, with restricted visibility, as we are poor theatrical types - and, crass as it is to say this, of course there's going to be a distancing; it's pure geographics. I, however, was very moved by the play - I found it very human in the face of such an alarmingly alien subject matter (more alien than my Maths GCSE grade would have you believe), with the romance in particular very affecting. How does one person come to understand another person's passions, and the moments glimpsed from this story showed a very charming little tidal pattern - a coming together, and a drifting apart - of one couple, with the husband (like in The Constant Gardener) attempting to make up for lost time after his wife's death in understanding what made her tick. (Men, eh? Always a bit too late in trying to understand women…)

True, the miscarriage moment came a little out of nowhere, but glimpsed as a stage in a developing relationship, it made sense to me, and the bitter pain of the crumpled paper baby being placed in the bin was particularly agonising, even from the dizzing heights of the upper circle.

My parents, true to form, went to see ADN and complained that there wasn't a "big wow" moment, like the elephant being created on stage using the screens in TEV, or the moment in CCC that still sends a shiver down my spine where the puppet child walked unaided for the first time. It is true, there wasn't a noisy coup de theatre to compare in ADN, but isn't this another moment where we should attempt to avoid hype - positive or negative - about a company's past in approaching a new piece? (I'm just reading a book called "Blockbuster" by Tom Shone about the American movie blockbusters in the Eighties and Nineties - I'm all about hype at the moment.) Yes, Complicite are popular, but don't you weaken your argument by saying rather snottily that they are "review-proof" and then attempting to take them down a peg? I completely understand the urge, and similarly I completely understand that this production left you cold, but should we as reviewers start from a clean slate every time?

ps. I am pleased to see your critical fellating of Katie Mitchell continuing in this review. I have just discovered that the guy I am flatsharing with at the moment is working as an Assistant Stage Manager with Ms Mitchell on her forthcoming production. Would you like me to steal some of his hair from the plughole so you can bag it up and occasionally stroke a little pelt of it?

Tom Wateracre said...

(I got an A in GCSE Maths, by the way... AN A!!!)

alexf said...

i think its worth noting the sheer ball-aching banality of much of what was projected.

A video of a bit of India (to convey its Indiayness, perhaps?) is one thing, but the sub-Matrix descending number sequence which was projected over much of the second-half was about the least profound way of illustrating that numbers are, like, eveywhere, and that maths is, like, all around that i've come across since my primary school teacher explained that we needed to learn about numbers so that we could understand how much we should be paying when we go to the shops.

Anonymous said...

I was excited that the subject was math and am one of those who wished not for more math, but for more on how the intuitiveness vs. structured styles interacted.

Everything in the review I agreed with. I just saw it at University of Michigan and thought the technology was too distracting and the play too disjoint.