Writer: David Auburn
Director: Polly Findlay
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Playing on the title’s various meanings gives David Auburn’s text from 2000 a certain depth, however this production falls somewhat flat. We have the complicated mathematical proof that the story revolves around. We also have the emotionally complex daughter trying to prove to herself and others who (and how) she is. Then there’s the lack of proof and need for trust when the question of authorship arises over the aforementioned mathematical work.
Auburn won a Pulitzer for his work, as well as a Tony award and several others. It’s not hard to see why. Indulging in layered meanings and levels of recursive themes that are almost unspoken puns (the daughter must prove the proof is hers as proof of her genius) the story has real promise and potential there to be unlocked. Opening a week after the death of the maths virtuoso Robert (a thoroughly enjoyable Matthew Marsh) who revolutionised modern mathematics, before he was 22 and began his descent into insanity, the play all takes place on the porch of the house he shared with Catherine (Mariah Gale) his daughter. We get to know him and his genius/madness through Catherine’s fantasies and memories which are interspersed with the aftermath events of his death.
Hal (Jamie Parker), a former student and fervent admirer of the genius mathematician is around as he is trying to see if the man wrote anything in his dozens of notebooks over the years of madness other than nonsense. The other daughter, Claire (a strongly accented Emma Cunniffe) has flown back to Chicago for the funeral and is causing a lot of hassle with her bossiness and general lack of understanding of the life her sister and father lived. A final, unknown notebook which contains a work of staggering mathematical creativity and ability is revealed and introduces the real crux of the plot: who wrote the notebook.
Played on a superbly detailed set designed by Helen Goddard and lit well by Paul Anderson, the piece takes on themes of fear of the unknown, ageing, the ripples through other people’s lives that mental illness causes and, unfortunately underdeveloped, female strength and independence. There is plenty of emotional heft in the story and the cast are great to watch, so it’s a shame it doesn’t quite work.
Overall the pace and rapidity of the interaction make it seem like an episode of an American sitcom, and the sometimes trite jokes provide a laugh track that only really cranks up on a scant handful of occasions. Moments of beautiful writing and performance, especially with Robert, appear every so often but these parts also highlight where the play lacks energy. There are some narrative and thematic lines that feel a little truncated by the time the rather pleasing ending winds up and leaves some questions that, while small and unimportant to the story in general, still niggle.
As mentioned, this is a great story and there is a lot of potential to explore some absorbing and seriously interesting aspects. This play, while certainly enjoyable, could have benefitted from being just a little longer if the extra time was used for proving some of the deeper themes.