I is a Strange Loop – Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould

A mathematical play, not a combination of words I ever expected to write and yet somehow it works. The authors are Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University Marcus du Sautoy and actress Victoria Gould who has a degree in physics and a masters degree in applicable mathematics. The play starts slowly with just one of the characters X on stage inside a large cube miming the drawing of two Platonic sequences, first the derivation of a regular hexagon using just a straight edge and a compass and secondly the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two using ever decreasing squares. Now this may not sound like riveting drama and frankly unless you know exactly what X is doing then it is very difficult to follow but X is about to have his whole world view changed by the arrival of the second character (or variable as they are referred to in the script) Y. Up until this point X has considered himself to be the only person and indeed the cube that he is in to be the only cube. Y however has travelled through millions of cubes and accumulated many things on her journey but is about to encounter her first ever other person, although she is surprised X is completely shocked by her appearance in his cube and through a couple of mathematical fallacies attempts to prove her non-existence.

OK this is probably sounding like a very niche production but believe me it is well worth sticking through the initial phases especially when we get to the second act which brilliantly turns the whole play on it’s head but more of that later. It also has to be the only play I have ever read that comes with a fourteen page guide to the maths in the play at the back of the book entitled A Mathematical Prompt Book. This is useful for the non-mathematician in explaining not only the maths but also some of the language used and functions very much like the glossary found at the back of some versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Would you get the joke about the Möbius script right at the end of the play if you don’t know what a Möbius strip is, probably not. But back to the first act. After Y demonstrates that there is a room, and in fact a series of rooms beyond the cube that X inhabits X then believes that the series must be infinite and tries (and fails) to prove this just as he also fails to physically prove other infinite series simply because, as Y points out, there are limits that prevent such physical proofs. All attempts to find an OUT, a place beyond the cube series also fail.

The second act is completely different and the humour of the piece grows, that’s not to say that the first act isn’t funny, the interactions between the purely mathematical X and the more practical Y are definitely amusing but the second act introduces reality is an very unexpected way. Right from the start of the second act Y believes the play is over and indeed no longer calls herself Y but instead uses her real name Victoria, X however is still very much in character. Victoria makes various attempts to disabuse X of his belief that the play continues including showing him that it is possible to leave the stage, go round the back and come back in from the opposite wing. She explains that the seemingly random noises heard during the play are the sounds of the underground trains near the theatre (there really was the sound of the underground where the play was first staged at The Barbican Pit Theatre in London) and she even produces a model of the set to show X that it is simply a stage. Nothing works and instead the play finishes almost back where it started. It really is very funny, both in the absurdity of the position that the characters find themselves in throughout the play and their changing relationships but also the increasing frustrating part of Victoria as the play is forcing itself back around her even as she believes she has finished.

The entire play can be seen here in a performance filmed at the Oxford Playhouse where the two parts are taken by the authors showing a surprisingly good acting ability from du Sautoy especially in what has to be described as experimental theatre. At one hour and fifteen minutes into the video the play is over and we go to a three quarters of an hour discussion about the play with Marcus du Sautoy, Victoria Gould interviewed by Simon McBurney, founder of Complicité, the theatre group responsible for the performance and which Gould is closely linked to. It’s definitely worth watching the play and it is considerably less intimidating knowing that the over two hour runtime of the video represents almost twice the length of the actual performance. Give it a go…

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