David Auburn’s 2000 play Proof may not have the pure formal beauty or ingenuity of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number – which covers similar thematic ground – but in Polly Findlay’s classy production it still proves potent.
After years of being her father’s carer, Catherine is coming to terms with his death. While he was once a brilliant mathematician, he was also mentally disturbed, and as Catherine faces up to her fears that she may be following in his footsteps both professionally and mentally, she finds herself becoming entangled with one of his former students, Hal, while also trying to deal with her fractured relationship with her sister.
Auburn’s Tony Award-winning play hits plenty of emotional buttons despite being a rather sentimental look at genius. But this tendency towards the saccharine is mostly avoided in Findlay’s engrossing production and an array of fearless performances bring some much needed edge to this story.
Mariah Gale, as Catherine, and Matthew Marsh, as her father Robert, present us with empathic portrayals of both mental illness and brilliance; Gale in particular is astonishing as outlier Catherine, her performance full of unique beats that continually clash with what we perceive as normal behaviour. She is blunt when she should be smooth, fast when we expect her to be slow, happy when she should be sad; all the while teetering on the edge of an emotional abyss. Gale makes it seem as though Catherine’s wiring has gone wrong, with spectacular results.
Jamie Parker does a fine job in trying to keep up as Hal – which is as it should be; Hal is a normal chap while Catherine is an exceptional woman. Parker’s Hal is charm personified, his nice guy persona tempered by his maths obsession. Emma Cunniffe, as Catherine’s sister Claire, proves to be a more than equal sparring partner; hers is a bullish and deeply sympathetic performance that demands understanding.
Findlay confidently crafts the action on stage. She adds touches of seemingly random interplay that liven up Auburn’s cleverly structured Socratic text where high minded dialectical discussions are lightly veiled within domestic scuffles.
Designer Helen Goddard’s purposefully shabby backyard set gives form to the mental decay experienced by Robert as well as proving a poignant reminder of where Catherine may end up. Although Gregory Clarke’s electronic score grates a little in it’s attempt to create an emotional landscape, it is undoubtedly haunting. Furthermore in its elegant abstraction it is Clarke who gets the closest to transporting us into the harmonious world of abstract thinking in which these extraordinary people are engaging.