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X&Y, Science Museum – Review

Presented by Twin Primes Theatre Company

Directed by Dermot Keany
Pros: A noble attempt at sharing the glory of mathematics with the wider public.
Cons: Erratic storyline, making it difficult to follow. Too in depth for maths-novices, too shallow for maths-lovers.
Our Verdict: A nice concept, but leaves some confused and others disappointed.
Credit: AKA Promotions
Mathematics and theatre is an unlikely combination, albeit one which is close to my heart. I happen to be one of the rare people who studies abstract mathematical techniques as a day job, while co-running a theatre blog in my spare time. I often try to get my friends and loved ones excited about the world of maths – perhaps by pointing out the fractal structure of broccoli or explaining that the front cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is an excellent way to visualise a Fourier Transform – but I am often greeted with blank stares. The truth is that it is difficult to get people excited about science. That’s where Marcus du Sautoy comes in. Like his predecessor, Richard Dawkins, du Sautoy holds a position called “Professor for the Public Understanding of Science” at Oxford University. His job is to get people excited about science and maths. To this end, he has teamed up with actor/mathematician Victoria Gould, and has flung himself onto the stage for the benefit of maths. 
I really wanted this show to work, in the hopes that everyone would see it and then be able to enjoy the elegant mathematical landscape that I get to explore each day. I really wanted this to work. Unfortunately, however, it didn’t quite get there. 
X&Y was borne out of a collaboration between Gould and du Sautoy, who met when Complicité were preparing for A Disappearing Number. The premise is that the two characters, X and Y, meet in a room which forms part of a seemingly endless corridor. X, played by du Sautoy, is content pondering maths all day, while Y, played by Gould, is desperately searching for a way “out”. Her claim is that, despite X’s objections, infinity doesn’t exist. Therefore, the series of rooms is not endless, and there must eventually be an exit. The plot gets rather convoluted, but ultimately, X&Y is about why maths and theatre are basically two ways of doing the same thing: using our imagination to examine situations which we might not be able to in real life.
Suffice it to say, X&Y unfortunately missed the mark. Even though the overall objective was noble, there were several small gripes – for instance that du Sautoy was prone to overacting (he is a professor of mathematics, not an actor after all, and his performance was laudable with this in mind), and the story lacked any particular direction. The main issue however was the following: as a mathematician, I got no new insights. As a non-mathematician, as was the case for my guest, the show was full of jargon and verbally spoken equations. This made it difficult to follow. As a theatre-lover, I expected more from the plot. As a theatre-novice, as was the case for my guest, the whole thing made little sense. So the show was too didactic for some, and too abstract for others, leaving just a very narrow potential audience of people “who kind of know a bit about maths and want to know more and also know a bit about theatre but want to know more”.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some good elements, such as the set, which consisted of a huge cube. But at the end of the day, the audience for this show was too narrow, and the plot too erratic. Theatre should be about entertaining, with a view towards educating, and in this case the balance was wrong, and for many the overall impression would have been confusion. One particular line from the show comes to mind, which I think would sum up the feelings of many audience members: “What the fac-torial?”.

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X&Y runs at the Science Museum until 16th October 2013.

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