Review: X & Y, The Science Museum

By Dan Young and Dulcie Lee

Rogue sent two King’s students (Dulcie being the new Roar! Deputy Editor of Print) to go and see the scientific spectacle that is X & Y, bringing an audience perspective from a less scientific point of view.

 

The skeleton of a giant neon cube for the set, oversized white, flowing clothes, performers gliding around stage and existentialist dialogue. Usually, I would find it incredibly hard to appreciate such pretentious fluff.

However, the simple, minimalist-in-the-extreme set of the play X&Y, currently on show at the Science Museum, and the two characters, ‘X’ and ‘Y’, clinical and naive, worked. It was the mathematics that created the drama, the beauty and the story.

From the offset, mathematics was the tool of communication – mathematical sleight of hand was used to prove that one equals zero, which was done at such speed it easily threw most of the audience off course. But the rest of the mathematical ideas were remarkably easy to follow, effortlessly building in complexity with an entirely opposite fashion to boring, impenetrable school textbooks.

The play follows a naïve ‘variable’ called ‘X’ (Marcus du Sautoy). Functioning like a calculator, all he has ever known is the empty blue shape. His entire universe is only six feet across. Following the arrival of bubbly variable ‘Y’ (Victoria Gould), they explore infinity, reality, paradox and existence with wonderful child-like curiosity.

As the play developed, wedged between the mathematics were brief flickers of emotion between ‘X’ and ‘Y’. The intermittent soppiness put a dampener on the pure maths, and was an unnecessary addition to already poignant themes. It felt as if the writers temporarily lost confidence in the story of the numbers, so pandered to the desires of those yet to be sold on the maths alone.

The play, although surreal from the start, intensified to an avant-garde peak when ‘Y’ broke the fourth wall. In response to a question posed by ‘X’, ‘Y’ announced directly to the audience: “None of this is real, we’re acting,” to which a few audience members offered a wave. In the next moment, ‘X’ and ‘Y’ were perched on chairs among the audience discussing the nature of reality.

The scene was as surreal as it was predictable, but stood behind me on a fold up chair was an eminent mathematician and Oxford professor, pretending to be a personified aspect of the subject he studies. “Why isn’t every mathematics teacher this cool?” I thought.

For the denouement, the two characters jumped on stage and tore off a belt of material from the set, wrapping it round their heads to demonstrate a Mobius strip. ‘Y’ drew on the similarities between mathematics and theatre: “In suggesting, we make something real.”

It was an inevitably ambitious aim to bring such advanced mathematical ideas to the stage, and it was brave to do so with a complete lack of conventional storytelling.

After a long applause the lights went up, the audience stretched and young teenagers spewed out into the foyer fizzing with ideas about high level mathematics. Surely that alone is evidence of its brilliant success.

 

And what did the Roar! Science Editor Durr-e-Maknoon Tariq think about the show?

As a Pharmacology student who does not have detailed knowledge of maths or physics, I found the play quite interesting and, mostly, easy to follow. In my opinion, the play gave out a message that all the concepts portrayed might be just that – mere concepts. They may not exist in reality, but that is what theatre does: it shows things that might not be real and may not exist in real life at all.

One of the very important ideas mentioned is ‘nothing’. According to the play, “nothing doesn’t exist”. Another very interesting concept mentioned is infinity. It has intrigued the human mind for centuries and yet we, as human beings, are not fully able to grasp it. Do we know if infinity really exists or is it all in our imagination?

Overall, I would say X & Y was a very interesting play to watch. Even if you don’t understand maths and physics, you’ll still understand the play. It will leave you thinking about the world and the universe, and make you ponder over the very ideas of reality and existence.

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