Proof, an acclaimed drama by American playwright David Auburn, explores grief, mental illness and family ties against an academic and mathematical backdrop. It is a family drama that shows the weight of genius, and the difficulty of trying to prove oneself and find validation in the people around us or from a world that thrives on insecurity.
Catherine (Marie Ellis), daughter of a celebrated mathematician, Robert (Bill Griffiths), is mourning his recent death after his battle with an undefined but all-consuming mental illness. Catherine struggles with her loss while also trying to step out of her father’s shadow and prove herself as a credible intellectual force in her own right. Catherine abandoned her academic career so that she could care for Robert, and only when his death opens the doors of possibility again does resentment begin to bubble inside her. She is also fighting against her older sister Claire (BrigettAne Goddard), who tentatively tiptoes towards moving Catherine to New York with her, fearing she might be suffering from or developing the same illness that consumed their father and robbed him of his genius. And then there’s Hal (Robert Purchese), a former student of Robert’s with affections for Catherine, who, while reading through Robert’s innumerable notebooks in the hope of finding some of his professor’s best work, stumbles across a book full of Catherine’s best work. However, Hal struggles to believe that the ground-breaking calculations are indeed Catherine’s. This issue takes somewhat of a backseat to the emotional drama that gently rolls out during the play, and as such is one element that feels undervalued throughout the piece, despite its importance to the central character.
The set is simple: just a shabby back porch with two chairs and stacks of magazines. Michael Folkard’s design, coupled with Dan Walker’s lighting design, created a soft, mellow ambience, gently lending impressions of place and season. Its simplicity allowed the intricate script to speak volumes, its stillness quietly mirroring the suspended state of Catherine’s life during her father’s illness and after his death.
Catherine is a strong central character whose wings are clipped by those around her, and at a time when she is questioning the direction her life has taken, so much about herself is being questioned too; her sanity, her mathematical genius, even her handwriting is under contention. Trust, or the lack of it, quietly brews in the centre of the Proof.
Marie Ellis deftly balanced Catherine’s strength and insecurity. She delivered a passage, both passionate and self-conscious, about Sophie Germain, a Parisian woman born in 1776 who confounded mathematicians of the time with her superb mathematical ability. Catherine speaks of an idol and delicately foreshadows the latent sexist attitudes Hal betrays in his denial of her abilities. He seems constantly on the brink of refuting her talent because she is a woman, however, it’s a bullet that threatens in the barrel, but is never fired.
Purchese delivered an endearing performance as Hal, his portrayal at once charming and comedic, with an innocent, jittery awkwardness that juxtaposed his invasive and at times insensitive behaviour.
Hal occupies an interesting space in Proof in the sense that his mistrust for Catherine is reflected back on him by the audience, who cannot trust that he isn’t using Catherine and Robert’s work for his own gain. He seems to assign love (or perhaps simply lust) for Catherine and respect for her father, and there is no intersection until he, somewhat patronisingly, concludes that the proof must be Catherine’s. It’s only then, almost with Hal’s permission, that Catherine is allowed to express her talent.
Somewhat on the outskirts, BridgettAne Goddard embodied Catherine’s glamorous, confident and successful sister Claire without ever seeming arrogant, delicately expressing a deep love and concern for her sister, but a cold lack of understanding for her vulnerabilities and sentimentality. Suggestions of doctors and institutions make her insistence that New York is the best place for Catherine sinister.
For the story’s tragic catalyst, the audience only acquaint themselves with Robert after his death, through hallucinatory interactions with Catherine and a handful of flashbacks. Bill Griffiths played a loveable and caring, if slightly eccentric, father, making the moments in which he raged against his illness all the more shocking and desolate.
The cast as a whole were extremely strong, knitted together by good chemistry and command over the text, all of their performances deftly exploring all the subtle sides of their complex and multi-faceted characters. Their handling of the sensitive scenes was mesmerising. A scene particularly steeped in raw emotion sees Catherine read out Robert’s new mathematical equations, only to voice the deterioration of his mind and confront him with the reality he was either unaware of or denying. Having thought his mind was finally working at its best again, Robert writes in a fever: ‘Let X equal the quantity of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. […] Let X equal the month of full bookstores. The number of books approaches infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future.’ It is a scene particularly stricken with grief and tenderness. That moment, surrounded by the scenes after Robert’s death, shows how grief can be present in life before death, with Robert mourning the loss of his mental stability and his intellectual genius that he felt had burned out by 25. His jumbled equation creates a singular kind of poetry, at once ordered and thorough, but wandering and bleak.
In a play that could threaten to meander, Claire Lewes’ direction kept the story moving at the perfect pace, fast enough to not lose the audience, but slow enough that the emotional nuances of the script had space to breathe. It was overall an excellent and atmospheric production. Critically acclaimed and gracefully realised by New Venture Theatre, Proof is a play that unfolds with tenderness, sensitivity, and elegance, a play whose story and characters linger long in the mind.