Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Hearts and Minds: QED

Ylaria Rogers as Catherine in Proof
Proof by David Auburn
Freefall Productions

The Q, 14 -17 March 2018

A mathematical proof is an argument in support of a statement based on exhaustive logic. It implies a clinical level of control, which David Auburn exploits in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Proof. Catherine (Ylaria Rogers) is the daughter of mathematical genius and professor, Robert (Gerard Carroll), who has recently died after a long mental illness. During his increasing insanity she cared for him mentally and physically as she explains in intimately heartbreaking detail.

Her sister, Claire (Julia Christensen), who has escaped filial duty in New York as a currency trader, returns for the funeral and to sell the house. Her bags may be light but her baggage is not. Meanwhile, Robert’s former student, Hal (Derek Walker), stumbles across a proof in his mentor’s notebooks that he believes will change the future of mathematics.

On one level the play is simplicity itself, pared back to four characters and a single set. Despite the intellectual subject matter, there is no emphasis on chalk-covered blackboards or complicated-looking equations; we never see the experimental scribblings as they are contained in innocuous-seeming notebooks. The action all occurs outside the house, set on an oblique angle across the stage, featuring an array of well-tended pot plants in a sort of conservatory and windows covered with sheets through which lights shine erratically during scene changes.

Against this solid backdrop, however, we are in the world of non-linear narrative and imaginary numbers. Robert, whose death precedes the beginning of the play, makes several appearances and gives Catherine a bottle of birthday bubbles, which she drinks with him. Should we see this as an example of her mental fragility or the time-bending possibilities of quantum physics? She, herself believes she may be following her father’s footsteps both in the cerebral world of prime number theory and the irrational realm of madness.

Scratching the surface further uncovers layers of guilt, fear and anxiety, as is felt in all relationships, whether that be between father and daughter; siblings; tutor and pupil; or lovers. Carefully constructed fa├žades crumble just as we are told the house in which Catherine and her father have lived until now is falling to pieces.

While a proof follows logical steps, it may also include natural language – in a mathematical context, this means a language developed and spoken by humans in an organic manner as opposed to a formal language, such as that used to program a computer. This is accepted to admit some level of ambiguity to the deductions, and this production excels in its ambiguity. Those who didn’t know the plot were shocked at the mid-point revelation, although admitting they should have seen it coming; a true testament to expert storytelling.

Tour director, Tyran Parke, and original director, Derek Walker, trust the actors to carry the narrative, and their belief is well placed as all four handle their character with subtlety and sensitivity. The frequent switches in pace and motivation are demonstrated through tone and expression as well as posture and movement. No one resorts to histrionics or excess; all are entirely believable. The role of Catherine is pivotal to the success or otherwise of this play and Ylaria Rogers imbues it with grace and nuance, highlighting every aspect from stubborn anger to enchanting naivety.

They also credit the audience with enough intelligence to reach their own conclusions about the ‘moral’ of the play rather than enforcing any particular agenda or riding any current hobbyhorse. The programme notes state that Freefall Productions wants to give audiences, ‘stories that they can identify with, theatre that touches our hearts and minds.’ With this superb and thoughtful gift of a production, they have done just that.

Alexander Brown as Hal and Ylaria Rogers as Catherine

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