Theater Commentary: Complicite, HD, and Freedom

Book lovers and filmgoers have long been able to sample art from anywhere they wish—to read a book in translation or to rent a DVD if they didn’t like the latest releases in the theaters. Now, because of HD,  devotees of the stage will be able to roam the world.

David Annen and Shane Shambu in Complicite's production of A Disappearing Number. Photo: Stephanie Berger

By Bill Marx.

A Disappearing Number. Directed by Simon McBurney. A Complicite co-production, presented by NT Live at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Boston, MA, on Monday, October 25 at 7 p.m.

I have often heard from avid Bostonian theatergoers that when they want to see new or quality stage productions they often go down to New York. But not everyone has the time or money to travel. And when the opportunity to venture forth comes, the theatrical pickings of the moment may not be to your taste.

With the recent success of HD simulcasts of theater productions (as well as of major opera and dance performances) at movie houses around the country, the New York stage is coming to Boston, along with other major cities. Shows not only stream from New York, but from London, Paris, and Moscow. Before long, as the technology improves, egged on by the growing demand, stage companies from Beijing, Mumbai, and elsewhere will make their best productions available to theatergoers. And at ticket prices that open up the theater to a much broader audience. Perhaps in the future, screening rooms may be built, at universities and elsewhere, dedicated to showing, via HD, stage productions from around the world.

Book lovers and filmgoers have long had the freedom to sample art from anywhere they wish—to read a book in translation or to rent a DVD if they didn’t like the latest releases. If HD becomes cheaper to produce, to the point that it expands to presenting shows produced by small or experimental companies as well as the mainstream warhorses, geography will no longer be destiny for curious theatergoers who are mighty tired of seeing another production of a script by a “commercial” playwright, such as David Mamet or Terrence McNally. There will be a seat for us at shows produced around the world—a wealth of opportunities that will build the appetite for local theaters while usefully undercutting their provincialism.

Perhaps ethnic groups that have settled in America—Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, Latin American, etc—and are currently underserved by the staid theatrical establishment will be able to view, via HD, new theater from their homelands. Toss in some subtitles and I wager a number of English-speaking theatergoers, bored with the offerings at local theaters, will be eager to sample what is going on in theater productions around the globe. My gut feeling is that, in the future, other countries will bring an excitement, passion, and vision to the stage that is increasingly missing in a culture that spends an increasing amount of its time speculating about how to market theater (or dumb it down) rather than tackling issues of artistic or intellectual substance.

David Annen, Shane Shambhu, and Divya Kasturi (behind) in Complicite's A Disappearing Number. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The latest example of HD’s liberating potential: a chance this coming Monday to take in A Disappearing Number, Complicite’s Olivier-award-winning (Best Play) meditation on the subtle connections between higher mathematics and memory. Those who couldn’t make it over to Europe or down to the Big Apple last July took advantage of an earlier screening of the production this month (streamed from the Theatre Royal Plymouth) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre—the theater was packed. Chances are the upcoming showing will be sold out as well.

Unlike earlier NT Live presentations, five cameras were used for A Disappearing Number rather than three; the visuals were handled with such ease that it almost looked as if the furiously multi-media production had been designed to be screened. Unlike the earlier NT Live productions, I left this one wishing to see this production “live,” in order to experience Complicite’s deft integration of technology and performers. I have written elsewhere about where I find the HD experience problematic—this time around I would say that the Coolidge Corner’s sound system was not always up to A Disappearing Number‘s considerable sonic demands, a dexterous meld of music, environmental/urban sounds, and overlapping dialogue.

The goal of A Disappearing Number is to dramatize the solacing beauty that order brings to science and to life. The show time trips between two relationships: the amazing, real life, turn-of-the-century friendship between Cambridge don G. H. Hardy and an Indian, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a natural-born genius at pure mathematics; and a contemporary, multicultural romance. The latter revolves around the courtship and eventual marriage between a British math teacher and an Indian business wiz based in Los Angeles. Engaging on several levels (those averse to math will not be intimidated by the talk about numbers), the script suffers from what I call “Unified Field Theory”-itis—the understandable artistic urge to make everything neatly fit together—math and life, infinity and death, outsourcing and community, past and present.

Serious drama is about how things, no matter how hard you try, don’t always add up. The need for drama to be inspirational—rather than provocative—encourages a convenient dependence on a poetry of reassurance. But the performances are superb, the direction inventive and kinetic, and the script wrestles with an important topic—the atrophying of our sense of history in an age of technologically-driven abstraction. There is nothing like Complicite in Boston—thus the great merit of bringing this world-class company here, even if it is on the big screen.


  1. Evelyn Rosenthal on November 4, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Not the same as seeing theater live, of course, but what an amazing opportunity to get to see world-class theater. Just discovered that Rockport Music ( has a series of simulcasts from the National Theatre of England at their new Shalin Liu Performance Center, including Derek Jacobi’s Lear in February. For less $$ even than the Met simulcasts! Though I’m not sure just how “simul” these “casts” are, considering they’re at 7 pm, which would mean a midnight or later showtime in England!

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