“Let X equal the quantity of all quantities of X”
Subjects like science and maths have proved interesting partners for a number of recent strong new dramas – Constellations, The Effect, Curious Incident… to name but a few – but this is part of a long tradition and the Menier Chocolate Factory have opted to join in this game with a revival of David Auburn’s 2000 play Proof.
Having dropped out of university to care for her father Robert, a mathematical genius who suffered from mental health issues, Catherine finds herself somewhat adrift when he finally passes away. She inherited much of his genius but she fears that she too will be plagued by a similar mental instability and her older sister Claire, long escaped to New York, is keen to support her by taking her away. But when Hal, one of Robert’s Ph.D. students, unearths an amazing discovery, the proof of the title, whilst sorting through the papers in the family home, Catherine finds herself challenged to prove who came up with this piece of brilliance and simultaneously confront exactly what legacy her father has left her.
The marriage of theatre and complex theorising is also a well-established one – there are echoes here of Stoppard’s Arcadia and chaos theory, Frayn’s Copenhagen and the uncertainty principle – and in these best examples, it doesn’t matter if you know anything about those topics as the playwrights blend these concepts into their work with a lightness of touch which never underestimates its audience. And Auburn manages something similar as it’s not necessary to fully understand the mathematical complexity in here to get to the heart of the story which is essentially a family drama about the strains that emerge between siblings, the fear of inheriting genetic traits, the struggle to deal with loss. That he achieves it by having the characters discuss the titular mathematical argument as they walk off the stage is a little bit of a cheat though.
And not being of a particularly mathematical persuasion myself, I couldn’t help but be confounded by what a proof actually was, how a maths problem could result in a 40 page document and venturing into the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia left me none the wiser. In fact reading the definition of a mathematical proof actually hurt my head.
“In mathematics, a proof is a demonstration that if some fundamental statements (axioms) are assumed to be true, then some mathematical statement is necessarily true. Proofs are obtained from deductive reasoning, rather than from inductive or empirical arguments; a proof must demonstrate that a statement is always true (occasionally by listing all possible cases and showing that it holds in each), rather than enumerate many confirmatory cases.”
What could it all possibly mean?!
But bafflement aside, Polly Findlay’s production gives a good account of the play, set solely in the yard outside the Chicago home of this family, effectively designed by Helen Goddard. Mariah Gale burns with a fragile intensity as Catherine, touchingly insecure in her conviction that her destiny is too interlinked with her father’s but visibly growing in confidence and inner strength through her interactions with her well-meaning if slightly over-bearing sister, Emma Cunniffe’s Claire brimming with an adopted New Yorker pragmatism, and the handsome Hal, Jamie Parker breathing amusingly awkward life into this young academic.
It is fearsomely well performed – Matthew Marsh’s father completes the set with a skillful portrayal of the frustrations of intelligence being decimated by mental decline, and in non-chronological order too – and the cumulative effect of the production is a strongly affecting one. Ultimately, and perhaps ironically given the dressing up with Germain primes and abstract theorising, it isn’t the most sophisticated piece of writing, it is hardly that adventurous in the final analysis, but makes for a satisfyingly solid 2 hours of finely acted drama. Now, where did I leave that quadratic equation…