Eight decades after his death, mathematician Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan is still swathed in mystery. Virtually unheard of here, Ramanujan is one of India’s great intellectual heroes, a Brahmin who defied tradition to travel to England in order to study at Cambridge, a mathematical genius who ascribed his brilliance to a personal relationship with a Hindu goddess. Stubborn and religious, he saw the divine in the dance of numbers; an acquaintance said of him that “every integer was his personal friend.” His work has been used to help unravel knots as varied as polymer chemistry and cancer, yet how he arrived at his theorems is still unknown. As Robert Kanigel writes in The Man Who Knew Infinity, “It is uncanny how often otherwise dogged rationalists have, over the years, turned to the language of the shaman and the priest to convey something of Ramanujan’s gifts.”
It is this mystery — and the unlikely friendship between Ramanujan and his British benefactor, the mathematician G.H. Hardy — that defines Ira Hauptman’s new play Partition, nimbly directed by Barbara Oliver at the Aurora. Witty, intelligent, and surprisingly accessible to the math-challenged, Partition follows Ramanujan’s pilgrimage to Trinity College, where Hardy taught. The two men couldn’t have been more dissimilar. The naive, inexhaustible Ramanujan (Rahul Gupta) was an observant Hindu, adept at dream interpretation and astrology. His work was marked by bold leaps and gut feelings. Hardy, ten years’ Ramanujan’s senior, was a stringent atheist who prized rationality and intellectual rigor above all. In one of the play’s most telling moments, Hardy explains that he’s “trying to make [Ramanujan] a complete mathematician so he doesn’t have to rely on anyone.”
The line is indicative of Hardy’s psyche. He was incredibly neurotic, refusing to look at himself in mirrors or be photographed. Contrary to biographical accounts of his good looks, Hardy — who apparently never dated, let alone married — was convinced he was too horrible to look upon. David Arrow plays him as an utterly convincing mass of tics and twitches; his portrayal suggests a man who can’t get comfortable in his own skin. Hardy also couldn’t talk about himself — the scene where he introduces himself to Ramanujan in the train station is hilarious (“I like cats, don’t like dogs and fountain pens. God, this is the longest introduction I’ve ever given of myself”). Yet he blossomed on paper and in front of groups, drawing the admiration of readers and students alike. Most of the lectures Arrow delivers in the play are based on Hardy’s real addresses to the London Mathematical Society, and their sleek passion stands in marked contrast to the distance Hardy kept between himself and others.
Where Hardy is chilly, classics professor Billington (a delightful Chris Ayles) is warm and welcoming, a good friend to both men. While in real life Hardy did have almost daily contact with Ramanujan — there’s evidence he nursed the latter through an illness — in the play it’s Billington who keeps tabs on Ramanujan’s welfare. He’s also a useful way for Hauptman to explain the math to the audience.
Although he managed to convince the vehemently atheist Hardy otherwise, Ramanujan was a devout man. Growing up he had learned to worship Namagiri, the consort of the lion god Narasimha. Unbeknown to Hardy, Ramanujan believed that he existed to serve as Namagiri’s champion. His grandmother had had a vision to that effect, and his mother believed it was through Namagiri’s agency that she was finally able to get pregnant. In real life Ramanujan told people that Namagiri visited him in his dreams and wrote equations on his tongue; in the play, she decides she doesn’t have enough to do in India so she accompanies Ramanujan to Cambridge to keep an eye on him. Namagiri is silkily played by Rachel Rajput, who has a wonderful smoky voice with which to berate Ramanujan for not taking proper care of himself.
Namagiri’s presence at Trinity College is one of Hauptman’s fanciful touches. The other lurks behind a scrim; Julian López-Morillas as 17th-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, laughing a fabulous laugh and scratching out theorems. Fermat is a marvelous turn from López-Morillas, who was last seen as Francesca Faridany’s pitiable nemesis in Fräulein Else. Here he’s big, arrogant, and mischievous, spending his time dreaming up ways to frustrate his rival, Descartes. Little does he know that he’s on a collision course with a certain dogged Brahmin and his guardian, who will try to wrest from him the secret of his famous last, unsolved theorem.
Of the liberties Hauptman takes, some are more successful than others. The cooking goddess and the lusty dead Frenchman work. Hardy’s last speech before the London Mathematical Society after Ramanujan’s death, however, is a stretch. Although Arrow does a fine job with it, Hauptman is working overtime to wrap things up neatly. It feels like the last scene in Shaw’s St. Joan, where Joan’s ghost merrily asks her persecutors if they’re going to “unburn” her. Neither Ramanujan nor Hardy need the apology; Hauptman’s sharp dialogue and character development create a vivid portrait of the mysterious intersection of genius and faith without it.