“Proof” could so easily have drowned in angst, rage and nihilism — the favourite themes of hip contemporary theatre: Actors on the cusp of madness denouncing the world. Joy, love and laughter, as it turns out, are so ‘yesterday'.
And, this is the perfect script to weigh audiences down with angst, rage and nihilism. A brilliant mathematician slowly, agonisingly losing his mind. Cared for by his adoring daughter, who realises she's inherited his gifts, fears, and madness. Her painfully-practical sister. The inevitable love interest, a bright young mathematician who engineers the final betrayal.
Anger, hope and love
Yet, the play, staged at the Museum Theatre by director Michael Muthu and his talented cast was surprisingly uplifting. There was tension, sure. Tension so intense it made you forget to breathe. There was despair, no doubt. Despair so palpable, it was almost claustrophobic. And yes, there was anger. Screaming, cursing, crying. But, there were also glimpses of hope, ties of love and flashes of comedy.
Muthu layers the story with careful craftsmanship. Yes, there's plenty of shameless emotional manipulation. But the characters are so earnest that you forget to resent being played on so relentlessly. This might start out as a story built on mathematics, on cold hard facts. “Are the only truths mathematical because they can be proved?” However, its form is fluid, influenced so strongly by varying emotion that every performance probably feels different.
The story explores the idea that the most explosive, life-changing truths are the ones you cannot define, control or predict. Written by American Playwright David Aubern, “Proof” opened in May 2000, and was staged on Broadway in October the same year.
“Proof” has four star roles, no supporting actors. As a result, every one of the actors has to engage the audience for the story to work. This cast not only pulled it off, but altered it with minor adaptations to each of Aubern's characters, making them more rounded and familiar.
Professor Sinha, played by Sudhir Ahuja, oscillated wildly and credibly between raving genius and proud father. “We hope our children will survive us and accomplish what we can't.” One of the most powerful scenes in the play was between him and his daughter Mandira, played compellingly by Nikhila Kesavan, when she finds him out in the cold. Excited and unsteady, he insists he's made a mathematical breakthrough, forcing her to read his notes, which are gibberish. Then in a heart-rendingly sudden slide, he moves from blustering to broken: “I'm cold. Don't leave please.”
Mandira's fiery love affair with Vivek Halda ‘Hal' adds unexpected angles. Hal, played by Biggu Chandilya, with his breezy affection, self-deprecating humour and charming sincerity, brings most of the sunshine into the story, acting as a friendly, but determined, catalyst.
However, the surprise element is Maya, played by Shaan Katari Libby. Her role is fairly well-defined in the original script as the chic and heartless sister who flies in from New York to ‘sort things out' with her bagels, bananas and jojoba hair conditioner. Shaan ends up almost stealing the show, with her aching vulnerability but backbone of steel, her baby pink dressing gowns and glittering diamonds. Her chemistry with Nikhila makes for some of the performance's best scenes, exploring the strained, complicated and unbreakable ties between sisters everywhere.
According to “Proof”, in the end all that survives is faith, love and family. Dangerously close to a corny tear-jerker? It's saved by restraint. No over-wrought dramatics. Instead, there's the elegance of the quiet wind chimes to depict a storm, meticulously-controlled sets altered subtly for every scene and actors who fall headfirst into their characters and never come up for air.