Thursday, February 20, 2014

Proof by David Auburn

Photo: Dario Gardiman
Proof by David Auburn.  Design: Graham MacLean. Directed by Sandra Bates at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, January 31 – March 8, 2014

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 20

The proof of the success of this production of Proof is that the house was very close to full more than halfway through its run.  The excellent quality of the acting is a measure of the important training role of the Ensemble Studio, demonstrated here by Matilda Ridgway (as the mathematical daughter Catherine), Michael Ross (as her pure mathematician father Robert), and Catherine McGraffin (as her less than mathematical sister Claire), thoroughly supported by the NIDA graduate Adriano Cappelletta (as the 28-year-old mathematician Hal, afraid he may already be past his creative prime).

The Ensemble has a long-established following (at dinner I overheard a dissertation at a neighbouring table about the famous University of Sydney Professor of Philosophy, John Anderson), with a warm sense of belonging to the tradition created by Hayes Gordon and whose mantle has been taken on so well by Sandra Bates.  For this appreciative audience, including myself as an Ensemble aficionado from way back, the performance I saw received the acclamation it clearly deserved.

What was impressive was the detail, not only in an evocative set which in the intimate in-the-round theatre made us feel at home with the characters, as if they were our next-door neighbours of many years, but particularly in the fine movement work – perhaps especially by Matilda Ridgway whose expressive eyes always told us what she was thinking and feeling – which was sure-footed and specific as in classical Indian dance.  Although on the surface the dialogue seems naturalistic, it was the skilful controlled action of the whole team, in examples from Ridgway’s eyelids to a sudden jump in reaction to an apparently accidental touch (this one by Catherine McGaffrin), that revealed the style directed so precisely by Sandra Bates. Even the screen door knew exactly when to bang shut.

The only disappointment for me was the sound track.  The program provides a great deal of detail about the music, by Bach (Musical Offering), Brahms (from Symphonie No 1 and Hungarian Dance 1), Lejaren Hiller (Illiac Suite – “the first musical composition for traditional instruments that was made through computer-assisted composition”), and an anonymous mathematician’s Cantor’s Theorem and Axiom of Choice Equivalent.  These latter pieces were posted on the Metamath website because the composer “noticed that a proof’s structure resembles that of a musical score and [he] decided to see what they ‘sounded’ like.”

Even though I had read the program over dinner before the show, I realised afterwards that I had only been aware of the occasional piece of the instantly recognisable Bach, and the striking extract from the Illiac Suite which introduced Act 2.  What was needed was a device to make us become aware and listen to the sound at significant points; whereas we were always drawn immediately in each of the nine rather filmic scenes to the characters and their relationships at that moment.  If the music was playing, our attention was elsewhere so that the sound was extraneous and our brains ignored it.

The idea of the music seems very sound to me, so I think I might have had an iPod sound system clearly visible on stage, which the daughter Catherine would switch on in the opening scene (where we see her in silence for some time) – or maybe it could be playing as she appears, until she switches it off.  At other times a character (probably the father Robert, but perhaps Catherine and her sister Claire) might be seen switching it on, or indeed off, but mostly, once we were aware of its presence, we would expect the sound and would listen to it in the spaces between action and dialogue.  In other words the music needed to be integrated into the action, instead of being peripheral, and unexplained unless you had read the program.

The play, set in the academic milieu of Chicago, has some extra resonance for Canberrans, with our close connection to the Australian National University (even apart from the original city design by the Chicagoan architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney). 

In my own case, I must disclose a special interest, since my daughter and her husband are ANU academics – he as an award-winning specialist in pure mathematics.  Like Robert’s daughter Catherine in the play, my grandson, when still six, awoke his parents one morning (after lying in bed from dawn until the time he was allowed to disturb their slumber), to announce that he had worked out that the number 31 could not be divided by any other number, except the number 1.  “Ah,” responded his father.  “You have just discovered prime numbers!  Well done!”

Despite my mathematical ability being no better than that of Claire, Robert’s other daughter in the play, my experience makes me appreciate the role of Hal, the one-time PhD student mentored by Robert in earlier times when he – Robert – had his full mental faculties.  Robert's loss of his mental “machine” is at the core of the plot in the play.  No wonder Hal is in awe of the man who had redirected our whole understanding of prime numbers (except in my case, of course – I remain blissfully ignorant).

Hal claims to realise that his own creative input is minor and is unlikely to reach such intellectual heights, since the common view is that mathematicians produce their best work before the age of 23 – and he is already 28.  In the play’s plot, now that Robert has died (and Catherine is turning 23), Hal’s insecurity, alongside his obsessive desire to search Robert’s notebooks for an even greater original proof, understandably makes him an annoying character – and even suspicious from Catherine’s point of view. 

Though I think Adriano Cappelletta captured the character very well, making me find him rather annoying too, I wonder if David Auburn has stereotyped Hal’s character too far to allow Catherine to finally accept him as she does in the last scene.  My experience of the mathematicians I knew when they were in their teens and twenties – and indeed now in their forties – has led me well away from the convention of ‘nerds’ who drank, used drugs and partied hard.  Hal, or at least his friends, sound more like the engineering students of my past.  My mathematicians were more likely to be found quietly discussing philosophy in the early hours.  In fact, much more like Catherine in the play.

Even so, Proof makes its point with very considerable power, especially about proper recognition of the place of women in the history of maths and science.  It results in an excellent night of theatre, especially when so ably performed.

Matilda Ridgway as Catherine and Michael Ross as Robert

Catherine McGraffin as Claire and Adriano Cappelletta as Hal

Catherine shows Hal the final proof

Photos: Clare Hawley