At first I thought it was a re-run of A Beautiful Mind a brilliant mathematician, into game theory and groundbreaking mathematical reasoning, tortured by madness. But in fact it’s quite different. Proof centres on a father-daughter relationship, exploring a young woman’s uncertainties and fears for her future in the midst of grief and family difficulties.
Hardly a new theme, but it’s very cleverly handled in this script by U.S. playwright David Auburn. The fact that it won a Pulitzer Prize has not escaped mention in QTC publicity, and should attract audiences. But the script would be of less value without a very high quality standard of acting and directing as exhibited in this production.
Proof has been a box-office winner in the United States, perhaps because it affords escapism of a cerebral kind from current depressing international problems. The play is timeless in theme, intelligent but accessible, and free of ideological baggage. It is a good script, although perhaps not quite so good as its popularity would suggest. It may just be that it is the right play for the times.
The play’s gentle humor is understated and witty. Auburn writes with a good understanding of his audience’s needs, and manages to make them feel they understand the mathematics jokes. He succeeds in capturing our curiosity about the key mystery of the play, and tantalises us with alternative solutions. The time shifts (across four years) add to the drama and are executed without ambiguity.
The action of Proof is played out on a relatively shallow space representing the back porch of a large two-storey weatherboard house, well depicted as upstage set. Most entrances and exits are through the slamming door in centre stage. Subtle lighting and mist effects combine with the set to convey a North American academic suburb atmosphere.
The four players, Melinda Butel, Carita Farrer, Kim Gyngell and Christopher Sommers, unite to give a balanced and convincing performance. They are obviously well directed in their roles by Jon Halpin. There is a well-rehearsed ease about their performances and, mercifully, their accents stick.
Gyngell’s portrayal of the mathematician Robert is firm and assured, representing the professor’s human warmth as well as his sharp intelligence which gives way to insanity. His elder daughter Claire is depicted in no-nonsense style by Farrer. The self-satisfied bossy elder sibling shows typical big sister certainty, common sense and intolerance of deviance. Sommers convinces as the geek research student Hal, amusingly conveying the different stages of his nerdiness in his mid and late 20s, as well as communicating his affection for both father and daughter.
But it is Butel who really stands out in memory. She is superb in her characterisation of the central character, Catherine. She captures the young woman’s unabashed adoration of her father, her intelligence, neuroticism and gaucheness. Through Butel’s reading of the character we sense her fear of inheriting her father’s madness and his genius. Schoolgirl-like, she folds her legs under her on the sofa, clutches and unclutches her father’s hands, trembles on the verge of a kiss with her admirer, gets tipsy easily on birthday champagne. I’ll be surprised if Gwyneth Paltrow does better in the forthcoming film of Proof.
In all, it’s a splendid night of theatre. Well done QTC.