A few days ago I saw Complicite’s new production at the Barbican, A Disappearing Number. I knew nothing about it other than Chris’s comments. Until he mentioned maths it hadn’t occurred to me it might feature in the show, despite the title. But it does, a lot.
I won’t recount the plot here — you should go see it — but, although I enjoyed it I did find myself getting annoyed a few times. Chris said, “why do they see ignorance of maths as as a funny thing,” and I think I know what he means. The play starts with a woman giving a mathematics lecture, writing equations on a whiteboard, with the audience as the students. It goes on for a while before a man comes on and pretty much apologises: “I bet you were worried the whole play would be like this.” Well, no, I wasn’t worried. I was enjoying it: the enthusiasm of the lecturer, her slight awkwardness, her fluency with scribbling down the — to me — impenetrable equations.
I was annoyed that Complicite felt the need to apologise for the maths. Thankfully much of the rest of the maths in the play isn’t apologised for and some of it is explained simply and unpatronisingly. But it’s frustrating that in plays, TV and films anything science-related is generally seen as, at best, a necessary evil.
A couple of nights ago I caught the end of Alan Titchmarsh’s new TV programme on gardening while he was talking about acid and alkaline soils. “The levels of acidity and alkalinity are measured using the pH index,” he said, before pausing dramatically. “Wait, don’t glaze over, stay with me on this, it’s important,” he said. What followed was a nice simple explanation of how to measure the pH level of soil using a little kit from a garden centre. Nothing complicated or scary about it, so why the need to apologise beforehand?
But, as I said, at least Complicite only seemed apologetic at one point, and the rest of the play they featured mathematics unashamedly. In a discussion afterwards the actors admitted to not knowing much about maths, but had become more interested during the ten week rehearsal process, during which mathematicians were on hand to explain things to the actors.
Hopefully, after the show, some of the audience would have felt similarly enthused. It’s not just the apologising about something being potentially “difficult” that annoys me; it’s how many people throw up their hands at the mere mention of anything scientific and proclaim their utter ignorance. From this post at The Stage it looks like several of the press’s theatre critics shared an “ooh, no, I can’t do maths, this sounds scary,” frame of mind.
Yes, it’s fair enough, if disappointing, that few people seem to have a decent grasp of maths. But what annoys me is how this “maths is scary” attitude suggests more than that. It suggests “not only can I not do maths, I don’t believe there’s any way I could ever understand any of it, and I have no intention of trying. Anything with maths in will be boring and only sad, geeky people could possibly enjoy it.” Why is this? Is maths education so appalling that most of the population have been scared off from doing anything other than basic adding and subtracting? I admit, I did ‘A’ Level maths, but there are plenty of subjects, scientific or otherwise, which I’ve never studied, or have an even more minimal understanding of, which I’d be happy to learn more about. Or, at least, see a play about without being worried over my lack of knowledge. Either I’ll learn something new or I won’t understand it — if the play’s any good my lack of understanding of scientific details won’t hinder my enjoyment of the story (as in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen).
Part of my reaction is possibly intellectual snobbery. Early on in A Disappearing Number an actor asks the audience to think of a number, double it, etc, before revealing that everyone in the audience is thinking of the number seven. I suppose that for many people this moment somehow brought the audience members closer together. But when the numerical revelation resulted in not only audible gasps from around the auditorium but a round of applause I felt completely aliented from everyone. I couldn’t believe it — I thought this was a hackneyed old party trick, a staple of fun trivia games to amuse children. I was annoyed that not only had so many people apparently never heard of such a feat, but that they could barely believe it possible without some kind of magic or telepathy. After the play some teenagers behind me spent as much time trying to agree how this feat was achieved as they did discussing the rest of the play.
Being stunned that the majority of the audience were amazed by something I’d known about for years could be snobbery. But I don’t think it’s snobbery to be disappointed at how unadventurous and incurious most people are. I imagine theatre-goers tend to be well educated, being mostly middle-class (at least at the Barbican) so there would probably be even more of an “I can’t do maths, so I won’t enjoy this play” attitude among a representative audience. Although I suppose it’s possible there’s some Two Cultures thing going on and the Barbican audience is even less scientifically-inclined than a randomly-selected audience would be. But that would be no less depressing.
The problem for a playwright or theatre company is to know how to cope with this. There’s a danger that they anticipate this knee-jerk audience reaction and water down the scientific content of a play in an effort not to scare people off in the first scene. A Disappearing Number did pretty well — it handled some complicated maths unashamedly, and going straight into a mathematics lecture shows a confidence that isn’t worried about scaring people off. Although this was deflated somewhat by the aforementioned “apology” which implied “Don’t worry, we’ll have some story about normal people soon.” But maybe there would have been even more maths in the story. Maybe Complicite held back on some of the maths for fear of alienating a nervous audience and that would be a shame. And it would be a shame if other productions hadn’t happened, or were watered down, for the same reason, because I’d like to see more, whether I understand the maths or not.
(For my more general, and shorter, review of the play, see the photo on Flickr.)