The lives and minds of scientists seem to elicit a curious fascination for artists. Many a stage has been filled with depictions of famous scientists, such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, about a meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, or scientific concepts, as in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play revolving around the laws of thermodynamics. David Auburn’s Proof falls in this latter category, a play about a young mathematician struggling in the shadows of her late father’s fame.
Oxford Theatre Guild (OTG), the amateur theatre company which is currently celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, is staging Proof this week at an uniquely appropriate venue. The play has been a major Broadway and West End hit, as well as a famous 2005 film, but it is hard to imagine a more suitable setting than the foyer of the Andrew Wiles Building, the new home to the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford. Proof is said to have been partially inspired by Andrew Wiles, who secretly worked on solving Fermat’s last theorem for years and delivered the proof in 1993.
The play lends itself well to this small-scale setting as it is written for only four actors. Set in Chicago, Catherine (Kate Richards) has been taking care of her famous mathematician father Robert (Heward Simpson) through long episodes of mental illness, a struggle which caused her to have to give up her own degree in mathematics. Her sister Claire (Laura O’Mahony) left the family behind to build up a successful career in New York. After Robert’s death, his former supervisee Hal (Marcus Davis-Orrom) insists on looking through his old notebooks, hoping to find a new breakthrough amongst the ramblings of a madman. Then Catherine shows him her own work, which turns out to contain the proof of a theorem that has been puzzling mathematicians for millennia.
The improvised location of the play — a toilet block and a seminar room are used as the backstage area — created a perfect rapport with the audience, which seemed to consist largely of mathematicians, as was to be expected. Proof is written for mathematicians: the play combines an impressively accurate depiction of mathematical research with plenty of corny maths jokes, which went down raucously as the actors showed a keen sense of timing. Unfortunately, it seems that the director failed to realize how confronting physical intimacy can be when presented in such a cosy setting. Not only were there a few too many kissing scenes between Catherine and Hal but they all lasted too long, creating the kind of discomfort in the audience one might be familiar with in cinemas, when the couple in front is more interested in each other than in the screening.
OTG may be an amateur company, but the actors’ performances were solid. Debuting for OTG in this role, Richards is a fierce, sympathetic, and admirably snarky Catherine, shining especially in the conflicts between the two sisters: O’Mahony depicts Claire as a prissy caricature of a young urban New Yorker. Davis-Orrom is convincing and genuine as the eager grad student, although he comes across as much younger than Catherine — possibly because Hal has not had to take care of a sick family member.
Although the timing of the jokes was excellent, the production as a whole could have been better structured. The play loses a surprising amount of force in the moments when the actors are not on stage: the breaks between scenes were too long, causing the audience to start chatting. This did not combine well with the beginnings of the scenes, which are slow in themselves, presenting a character on their own for a while before beginning the dialogue. Proof contains passion, violence, humour and a fascinating depiction of mathematics, but waits too long in giving it to the audience, resulting in a play that feels rather languid.
‘Proof’ runs at the Mathematical Institute until 24 October. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.