Edinburgh Fringe 2015
“An enchantress of numbers, Ada Lovelace was a mathematician, a celebrity, a poetical scientist, the daughter of Lord Byron and the world’s first computer programmer. This inventive, playful and powerful show brings Ada’s inspirational achievements and legacy to life.”
The worry with university theatre is that it might be a lot of white face paint, black leotards and Trestle masks. As we took our seats, and the seven actors looked out at us from the stage, there certainly was a worrying abundance of black t-shirts, leotards and ease of movement clothing (though no face paint or masks). So, yes, this piece might not be to everyone’s taste but there is definitely something worth seeing here.
Let’s begin with Ada Lovelace. On this, the 200th anniversary of her birth, Edinburgh should be awash with plays about this fabulous first computer programmer. She was a woman who conceptualised algorithms before computers were even invented. She was a mathematician and scientist. Daughter of Lord Byron, Ada’s mother was fearful she would inherit her father’s wildness. So Ada was schooled in mathematical thinking.
Ada isn’t all over Edinburgh this year, which is puzzling in itself. Perhaps it’s because Ada’s work is hard to explain and her personal life was not overtly dramatic. Any retelling of her narrative has to be either embellished (as with The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, name-checked nicely by EUTC) or told in a non-narrative form. EUTC cleverly opt for the latter and have devised a piece that allows Ada to only “speak through her own words”.
Their show aims, “to lie between the sciences and the arts, presenting moments that are scientific, and moments that are artistic, to create a full, rounded view of a woman who truly was both.” There are scenes using Ada’s letters and diaries that loop or branch out across time, mirroring Ada’s work. These moments of Ada’s life are fused together with educational lectures from the actors about computing history and Ada’s work. There’s also mime, dance, actual footage of the Difference Engine, classical music compositions, and live camera work. It’s a heady mix that is in danger of running away with itself and becoming bizarre.
This piece could be read as EUTC getting a bit carried away with all forms of multimedia and expressive art or it could be a highly nuanced comment on the fractured nature of Ada’s scientific and artistic process. I’d like to believe it is the latter.
The moments of dancing, such as the group machine and the points where Ada considers flying and later fails to fly are particularly well imagined. The dramatic elements are well chosen and the use of Ada’s writing is haunting when looped. The female actors all take on the role of Ada at different times. They each bring something unique to the role and it is a successful way to chart the varied aspects of her personality.
The animation of the analytical engine was beautiful and another way to suggest Ada’s creative process. While the live action footage was beautifully shot and was, perhaps, an attempt to show deeper emotions than the characters would have been able to openly portray, it sometimes confused the moments of drama.
The lecture elements were well written and the actors stepping out of role to explain the more complex ideas and backstory bookended the more abstract elements of the piece.
This is by no means an easily accessible piece. At times it is overloaded and complex. However, it is an ambitious project that seven young artists have explored deeply. There’s a sense that they’re baring their souls here and wish to present every facet of the journey they’ve taken.
If you love science and have a soft spot for watching abstract work then this is certainly something to see.