David Auburn’s Proof, on at The Tabard in Turnham Green, premiered in 2000, transferred to Broadway and the following year won the Pulitzer drama prize. It is a study in love, ambition, mental health and genius. Sebastien Blanc’s production takes us gently in its grip and catches fire in the second half. One of the stars is the fine, intricate and just beautiful set design by Michael Leopold, perfect for the intimacy of The Tabard. I’ve been many times to that theatre and the stage has never seemed so large. It was as if he put the whole world into that small space.
A brilliantly structured play and also so clever, it opens with Catherine, Julia Papp, duty-bound in the role of carer to her mentally ill father, Robert, Tim Hardy. When he was her age, in his mid-20s, he had done his best work as a mathematician. She is also talented in that area, but has done nothing, we are led to believe. Kim Hardy as Hal is a former student of Robert, and after his death he searches for the work of genius he believes must be there somewhere in his profusion of notebooks. But as we suspected, the notebooks contain nothing but nonsense. Finally, led by Catherine, he finds a “proof”, and then it is Catherine’s job to prove it was her proof, not her father’s. The ending is optimistic and full of hope and love. Kim Hardy is outstanding on the stage, utterly convincing as the voice of sanity while Catherine struggles with depression, self-doubt and despair. We are given ghostly flashbacks of her father’s mental illness. Her well-meaning but unlikeable sister Claire, Mary-Ann Cafferkey, is again beautifully played, but she is compellingly dreadful as a character. Mental illness, any kind of chronic illness, can turn families inside out, and this is shown vividly but not so much that we are ourselves brought to despair.
Like so many, I’ve witnessed mental illness in my family of origin and completely empathised with Catherine’s deep fear that his mathematical talent might not be the only thing she inherited from her father. In our family, among the older generation, there have also been deaths from dementia. This is another illness of the brain, with possible hereditary factors, that can hang over a person, an equation where x equals an axe-factor, disempowering them completely from the business of the life they have at a given moment.
These are the fears that Proof works through and, surprisingly, it offers resolution, or should I say, a solution. The answer is not x but y. Why be afraid of an unknown future, why be afraid to succeed, to love? The conviction put into Proof by all four of its talented cast, with the hauntingly lovely background melodies of composer Chris Roe, make this definitely worth the journey out to south-west London to see. It is thought-provoking, reassuring and honest. And it is also rather amusing with some top jokes. I learned a lot about maths geeks, and would never have guessed they could be such fun.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
Catherine has sacrificed her education and social life to care for her brilliant but unstable father during the worst of his mental degeneration. On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday Catherine must deal not only with the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire, but also with the attentions of Hal, a former student of her father’s who hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks of Robert’s. As Catherine confronts Hal’s affections and Claire’s plans for her life, she struggles to solve the most perplexing problem of all: How much of her father’s madness or genius will she inherit?
Proof explores the unknowability of love, the mysteries of mathematics, the elusive nature of truth and the fine line between genius and mental illness.
29 September – 24th October 2015
2 Bath Road
London, W4 1LW