January 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This review discusses Number Theory, a play that focuses on maths and mental health.
Number Theory Play

I , Science were invited to Coalition, a night of scratch theatre ran by Maiden Speech. The evening featured new pieces written by six young, female artists, all of which explored the interplay between gender, sexuality, race, and mental health. Admittedly, Central London’s Tristan Bates Theatre is perhaps not where one might expect to find much coverage of science. Over the course of the evening, however, it became clear that scientific themes featured in several of the pieces. It was fascinating to observe how everything from IVF, to microchimerism, to the structure of the skin, had been woven into the scripts.

Specifically, we’d come to watch an extract of Number Theory, written by Imogen Usherwood. Number Theory follows Evelyn (Helena Baker) as she studies for a hugely important exam – but not without the help of Stella (Hatty Tagart), the personified manifestation of her generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Usherwood does well to capture the uniquely stressful atmosphere that will be familiar to anyone still haunted by the memory (or reality) of the exam season. Perhaps there is also a hint at the very particular strain of anxiety which many will associate with maths. Stella doing everything in her power to distract Evelyn as she attempts to focus on her revision is a clever way to depict Evelyn’s racing mind. In fact, some of Number Theory’s best moments come when Evelyn’s mental spirals coincide with Stella’s delight at her distress.

One of the most interesting facets of the piece is its treatment of the nature of maths. Evelyn’s explanatory whiteboard diagrams and lines such as: “Maths always makes sense!” are juxtaposed with the confusing concept of “imaginary numbers”. Another merit of the piece is its ability to explain difficult ideas like this in comprehensible terms, without feeling like a maths lesson. It was interesting how the rationality of maths was compared to anxiety-fuelled irrational thought processes. Usherwood’s script highlighted how, for both mathematical concepts and mental illnesses, “Just because something’s imaginary doesn’t mean it’s not real”. Similarly, Evelyn defines the complicated realities of maths and GAD in terms she already understands: imaginary numbers as real numbers and her mental illness as Stella, a human girl just like her.
Interestingly, Usherwood’s writing referenced the association between academic achievement and anxiety, with Evelyn even crediting her disorder as “the reason I’m good at maths.” Both actors worked well together to create the unusual chemistry required to portray this complicated relationship. Tagart’s excellent performance achieved the difficult feat of ensuring Stella was the villain you loved to hate, switching from electrifying charisma to a relatable sulkiness. Similarly, Baker’s impressive emotional range allowed a naturalistic build-up to the piece’s climax. She excelled in her outbreaks of righteous anger, and especially in the moments of quiet introspection.

Number Theory is an incredibly thoughtful portrayal of mental illness and its contradictory role as both motivator and saboteur. The way in which Usherwood draws parallels between anxiety and maths felt original and insightful, and with a more developed set and use of tech, I’m confident that Number Theory’s next performance will be even better.
Number Theory will be performed in full at Durham Drama Festival in February 2020. Ticket information will be released by Durham Student Theatre nearer the time.

This article was written by Charlotte Hartley. Photo from Charlotte Hartley