Sunday, 20 May 2012

"Tenet" - Galois on stage

I had intended my next post to write more about the Vampires and Maidens problem from the TV programme "Dara O'Briain's School of Hard Sums", but that will have to wait, because I want instead to write about the play I saw a couple of nights ago, in the faint hope that someone might read it in time to see something they would otherwise have missed.

The play is "Tenet", by Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson, which is at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London until May 26th.  Actually the full title seems to be "Tenet: 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".

The two characters are the young mathematician Evariste Galois and the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and the performances by Lucy Ellinson and Jon Foster are truly sensational.   On the evening I went, there was post-performance discussion between the group theorist Peter Neumann and the author Lorne Campbell, which I think was remarkably successful, both for the mathematicians and the lay people in the audience.  The play seems to have been a labour of love for Campbell, who read about Galois ten years ago and had wanted to write about him ever since.

There is a lot of mathematics in the play, and it is presented intelligently and accurately: the story of modern algebra is communicated remarkably well.  But there is much more to the play than that.  There is rich reflection on the nature of truth.  Galois's concern is pure, abstract, essential mathematical truth: if humans had never lived Galois's mathematical structures would still exist (or so I like to think).  Assange's concern is with revealing the truth about the human world in which we live.  And the personal circumstances of both are extremely murky.  We don't know why Galois fought the duel in which he died (if indeed there was a duel) and what we know about Assange are equally complicated.

I went to this play out of curiosity: from the brief plot summary on the website I didn't see how it could possibly work.  It was astonishing: a truly remarkable theatrical experience, with outstanding performances in a quite exceptional play, leaving the audience with much to think about in relation to politics, mathematics and truth (exactly as promised by the subtitle).  It is very rare for mathematics to be central to theatre in this way.  If you can possibly see this play, I strongly recommend you do so.

While on the subject of mathematics in literature, I might also mention a wonderful short story I've just read.  I've enjoyed all the stories in Etgar Keret's Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (recently published in English translation), but anyone who likes mathematics will particularly love the one entitled "What, of this goldfish, would you wish?"  A gem in eleven small pages.


  1. I only just found this and I'm utterly disappointed to have missed it. Still, I'm buying the Etgar Keret book to try to make up for it.

  2. Dear Tony,

    I maintain a Website that lists works of mathematical literature and have just quoted your blog in my entry on Tenet. With your permission, I would like to quote more of your review, or perhaps even repost the entire review on my Website.

    I will also check out the short story you mention. If you know of any other mathematical fiction not already listed among the 1075 entries on my database, please let me know!

    Thank you,

    Alex Kasman

  3. thanks for posting.