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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Tenet
Gate Theatre    Spring 2012

Subtitled 'A True Story About the Revolutionary Politics of Telling the Truth About Truth as Edited by Someone Who is Not Julian Assange in Any Literal Sense,' this new play by Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson tells the story of the nineteenth-century French mathematician Evariste Galois.

Its biography is simple enough – misunderstood schoolboy becomes brilliant mathematician, gets involved in radical politics, dies young – but its attempt to use mathematics as a metaphor for politics, and vice-versa, is less successful. 

Julian Assange, operator of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, is brought in as another radical in politics and intellect, and as a professional publisher and clarifier of complex data. In fact the play's Assange doesn't help much in explaining the maths, Galois doing a pretty good job himself. 

Skip this paragraph if you're someone whose brain goes on strike at the mere mention of the word algebra. Basic mathematics knows how to solve simple equations, and there's a standard way of solving problems involving squares, cubes and even x4. But when you get to equations involving x5, sometimes the standard method works and sometimes it doesn't. Galois' discovery was not an alternative way of attacking fifth-degree equations, but a way of telling in advance whether the usual way would work – in effect, whether to bother trying. 

I can see how that's useful to mathematics and even how, as the play suggests in its final moments, Galois' thinking-outside-the-box may have inspired later intuitive leaps in maths and physics. What the play simply does not make clear is what this has to do with politics, Julian Assange or 'Telling the Truth About Truth'. 

As an explanation of an arcane bit of mathematics, even as a salute to that bit's significance, the play succeeds. As anything more, and as a play, it does not. 

Most of what goes on around the explication of Galois' discovery seems empty razzle-dazzle – a lot of punning, some stage business involving blackboard and whiteboard, the serving of tea and biscuits to the audience, a model of the stage set with a model of the stage set in it. 

This being a production of Greyscale, the company's signature breaking of the fourth wall is well in evidence, with members of the audience brought on stage or given lines to read, and at one point we are all made to stand, join hands and hum the Marseillaise to represent Galois' thought processes (Don't ask). 

Except for the unhappy schoolboy period, Jon Foster plays Galois in a range between enthusiastic and frantic, while Lucy Ellinson's Assange is more laid-back and supercilious. Director Lorne Campbell keeps his actors bouncing around the stage and audience, and the hour is certainly not dull. It just doesn't add up to much.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Tenet - Gate Theatre 2012   

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