The importance of being certain: David Auburn’s Proof at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Saturday 16th March 2013, matinée

Families have always been a rich seam for dramatists and audiences alike, perhaps because we all seek to answer the question ‘why are we the way we are?’ or more scarily ‘are we becoming like our parents?’  These are the sort of  questions David Auburn works through meticulously in his 2005 play ‘Proof’, in a new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  The title plays on both the mathematical goal of certainty in the world of numbers, coupled with the innate and ultimately unfulfillable human desire for certainty in the world of identity, emotions and relationships.

Set against the backdrop of an academic community where only certainty has any credence, the story centres around Catherine, the young daughter of Robert, a world famous mathematician who has succumbed to mental illness and has been cared for by her for five years until his death.   We find her sparring with Hal, a former protégé who has been examining the notes Robert wrote during his illness hoping to find some ‘great work’ among the random scribblings , the result of graphomania in his later years.  Into this mix comes Claire, Catherine’s  older sister, determined to solve the mess with a pragmatic and single-minded common sense which comes from being at a distance for so long.  At the core of the action is Catherine’s fear ‘I think I’m like my Dad’, and through these four well-rounded characters we explore what it means to be a father, daughter, sister and lover, and the true value of the gifts our parents give us.

As Catherine, Mariah Gale delivers a subtle and nuanced performance, avoiding the usual clichés associated with youthful rebellion.   Her Catherine is vulnerable and socially awkward, yet warm and intelligent, and with her biting laconic style she makes every line into a flash of insight. 

Matthew Marsh, a hugely under-rated actor in our opinion, played the young physicist Werner Heisenberg in an outstanding production of  ‘Copenhagen’ many years ago, so it was particularly satisfying to see him here returning to play a mathematician fifteen years later – he clearly has something of the boffin about him.  His performance is richly understated and he delicately portrays the genius trying to come to terms with his own mental deterioration with disarming humanity.  He is just as distressed by the effect on his daughter as he is about his own lost years of work, and the scene where he has to face the truth about his mental impairment is heartbreaking.

Jamie Parker’s Hal brings light relief and a nerdy charm with some well-judged comedy, and it is easy to see why Catherine becomes attracted to him, although he is just ambiguous enough to keep us guessing about his motives.  Emma Cuniffe as Claire gives a sympathetic portrayal of the sister that got away, trying to do the right thing while fighting a nagging sense of guilt about the past.  She captures the sense of being the most ‘normal’ family member who nevertheless feels like a fish out of water when she gets back home.

In short, where x is an outstanding cast, y an imaginative and witty playwright, and z and well executed production, x + y + z = the best night out in the Menier we’ve had in a long time.  And just to add icing to the cake, we had a perfect view of the action.  Looks like they have finally found the perfect formula for their seating plan.

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3 Responses to The importance of being certain: David Auburn’s Proof at the Menier Chocolate Factory

  1. John Branch says:

    I’m curious about one thing. If I remember right, the play is set in Chicago, or at least was when I saw it. Did the production you saw retain that setting and employ American accents for the characters’ voices?

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    • rageoffstage says:

      Well, we can’t vouch for the accuracy of the accents, but they were definitely American and the setting was a Chicago backyard. We found the downbeat set quite refreshing!

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  2. Pingback: A Human Being Died That Night: Hampstead Theatre downstairs | rageoffstage

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