Writer: Edinburgh University Theatre Company
Director: Melanie Phillips
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
There’s no doubt that Ada Lovelace remains a remarkable figure, one of very few women who made lasting contributions to 19th-century science. Any story of her life is bound to fall short of comprehensiveness, but it should at least be comprehensible. While this multimedia devised show has moments of lucidity, it’s too fragmentary and lacks the coherence of a conventionally scripted drama. Ada’s own words – “cloudiness and indistinctness” – are its chief characteristics.
A cast of seven interchange rôles and also step forward as themselves to deliver short expositions, on the function of algorithms, the nature of a computer program or the significance of Bernoulli series. The performers also recite verbatim quotes from Ada’s writings, but in aiming for “the purest form possible” they actually create a watered-down drama. For example, we’re told snippets about her key working relationship with Charles Babbage, and the importance of her understanding of his Analytical Engine, but we don’t get to see them actually engaged in a conversation.
We do see her notes, in the shape of petals, gradually forming into a flower on the floor, as we learn how the Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves images in cloth. The piece itself produces similar analogies: the mantra-like repetition of text, for example, illustrates the functioning of a computer program’s loop. Unfortunately, another feature of computers – buggy code – is not entirely avoided.
Projection and live action footage occasionally work well to create a visceral, immersive experience, although the use of recorded speech sometimes seems pointless when there are actors with voices milling around on stage.
Ada did not realize all her ambitions, but she reached higher and further than most, and her legacy is all around us today. She lived at a time when electricity was new-fangled, and yet her work lives on in the digital age.
Runs until 30th August