Family drama, death, desire and a touch of algebra…David Auburn’s Proof at the Courtyard Theatre
On Sunday 25th September, we had the pleasure of watching the final performance of David Auburn’s Proof, performed expertly by a quartet of actors at the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton. Off the beaten track, The Courtyard is a hidden gem that provides a forum for independent productions, plays and showcases that you won’t find in the West End. It’s perfect for avid drama lovers looking for something different or theatre-goers on a budget.
Proof follows the relationship between a young woman in her mid-twenties (played by Michelle Alexandra) and the mentally unstable father she cares for (performed by Rus Kallan), both sharing a gift and love of mathematics. Structured mostly around dialogues, the play opens with the surreal revelation of father Robert’s death and the aftermath that follows, including the discovery of an important paper documenting a new mathematical theory – the eponymous “Proof” of the play’s title. The father-daughter act is supported by the arrival of Catherine’s sister Claire, played by Melissa Jean Woodside, and a romantic interest in the shape of former math student Hal, played by David Isiguzo.
At its core, Proof is a play about inheritance, in all its forms – financial, emotional, intellectual and professional. Catherine has clearly inherited her father’s gift for mathematics, but she has also inherited his flaws; the mental instability that comes with genius. The intensity and tragedy of her character is consistent throughout the play. She has always been the “fragile” one. The “naïve” one. The “unstable” one. The “doting” one. She is the sister who had to stay behind and devote herself to caring for their father while the other one got to start a new life.
Yet while her sister Claire presents a façade of picture perfect city girl with a successful career and a fiancé to boot, she certainly has her moments; moments where Woodside physically spits in the face of Isiguzo in one of the play’s most intense scenes. This demonstrates to the audience that Claire isn’t the one who survived the “crazy” gene. She’s just the one who escaped, suggesting that the sanity of the characters is intrinsically linked to their surroundings.
There are also moments of comedy: ludicrously high-pitched giggles (another trait that runs in the family), drunken one-night-stands, head-holding hangovers and awkward social situations. These are juxtaposed against moving mental breakdowns and deeply disturbing disputes, especially when the “Proof” in question becomes the subject of debate, with no one believing that Catherine is the true author. The question mark over her sanity and academic ability by those who should be her biggest supporters creates a feeling of frustration within the audience on her behalf, resonating with anyone who has failed to be believed when it matters most.
However, despite its academic subject matter, Proof is not an intellectual play. You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to understand the plot, feel for the characters or relate to their problems. Their problems aren’t really the problems of the academic world, they’re human problems: the problem of trust in a new relationship, the problem of love (or hate) between sisters, the problem of financing a household when no one is working, the problems of growing old, of growing up or growing apart. All are explored expertly by this small ensemble of actors who, together, exhibit incredible onstage chemistry, delivering a winning performance that demonstrates the freedom of expression and interpretation that comes with independent theatre.