Proof was written by Chicago-born playwright David Auburn, and first staged in New York in 2000. The following year, it received both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, and in 2005, was adapted for a film version directed by John Madden and starring Hollywood heavyweights Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins.
Recently, Proof took the stage in Melbourne, in a production by Artefact Theatre Co, and has just opened in Sydney in a separate staging care of FREEFALL Productions, in association with the New Theatre.
Proof tells the story of 25-year-old Catherine (Ylaria Rogers), whose father, Robert [Peter Flett], a mathematical genius and University of Chicago professor, has just died. His death leaves Catherine to grapple with the extent to which she has, or may have, inherited both her father’s strongest traits as well as his afflictions. The text reveals Robert struggled with mental illness for an extended period and is crystal clear in painting a picture of the professor as an enormously esteemed and revered academic.
After Robert’s death, one of his students, 28-year-old Hal (Alex Brown), begins spending hours each day scouring hundreds of notebooks Robert left behind, searching for any work that is potentially publishable. While Catherine is convinced – and attempts to convince Hal – that the notebooks are filled only with scribbles documenting Robert’s mental descent, Hal is far from sharing her convictions. But while Catherine’s sister, Claire (Julia Christensen), is in town for the funeral, Hal locates a notebook he says contains a remarkable mathematical proof. He shares the news with Catherine and Claire, but at that time, a question arises as to its authorship, and the alternative potential candidate for the proof’s author gives legitimacy to the possibility that it’s not the work of Robert. So, how will the truth be established in Robert’s absence? How will proof be ascertained as to the identity of the author?
Auburn’s text is thought provoking and well crafted, and FREEFALL’s production of Proof makes for a compelling evening at the theatre. On the design front, Jeremy Allen has done a wonderful job in recreating the back porch of the home in Chicago once occupied by both Robert and Catherine. It’s scaled well for the size of the New Theatre’s stage and effectively evokes a strong sense of the setting in which Proof’s events unfold. Alex Berlage lights the space effectively throughout. Notably, Berlage adds enough mist to the opening scene of the play that not only clearly conveys the bitter cold of the night, but also makes the deceased’s presence, while ‘conversing’ with his daughter, effectively feel supernatural. There’s also been a decision to punctuate scene changes with flashing disco lights, accompanied by pieces of rock music – a thoughtfully incorporated touch, serving as a clever reference to the furious workings of the human mind.
Bringing the characters to life on this occasion are four actors who all prove they’re up to the task. As Catherine, Rogers convinces as the young woman who’s fearful of what she’s potentially inherited from her father and who’s ultimately more than capable of making her own mark on the world. Brown’s Hal is appropriately affable and awkward, Christensen’s Claire is the perfect polar opposite to Catherine, and Flett delivers the character of Robert with a John Keating likeability that ensures he’s believable as the gifted mathematician, once a true hero in the eyes of his colleagues and pupils.
There’s room for the cast to enhance their performances further for greater impact. At times, it did feel that lines of dialogue ran too quickly off the back of one another. A more naturalistic feel would perhaps be realised by the insertion of a breath or two of space in these moments. Additionally, some of the more emotionally laced speeches in the text could be injected with more emotion, in order to heighten the overall dramatic impact of the piece.
On the whole though, FREEFALL has delivered a solid production of the celebrated work. Proof’s intelligent focus on the struggles associated with mental illness makes this a piece that should continue to have an audience through 2016 and well beyond.
PROOF – SEASON DETAILS
Playing until 30 July at New Theatre, 542 King Street Newtown
Wed–Sat 7.30pm plus Sat 2pm & Sun 5pm matinees
Saturday 30 July final performance 5pm only
Tickets: Full $35 | Concession $25 | Bookings: newtheatre.org.au/proof