Oedipus, National Theatre: Olivier, London
A disappearing number, Barbican, London

A harrowing and fateful voyage round his father

It's more than a decade since the National staged Sophocles's great primal tragedy. The difference of approach between the two productions is stark. In 1996, Peter Hall went for broke, renewing the ancient Greek practices of mask and ritualised movement and using a translation of rhyming couplets. Jonathan Kent's new Olivier production shows what can be achieved with a style that mediates between formality and modern informality.

The chorus, for example, are citizens in contemporary suits who can turn into a male voice choir for passages of dissonant lamentation and protest. The setting of verdigrised brass is both monumental and undercutting – huge double doors mounted on a curved disc of a stage that gives the characters no flat ground. Frank McGuinness's translation is a mix of impassioned simplicity and sly, modern notes of self-conscious irreverence – as when, knowing the relief that it will bring, the Stranger from Corinth tells Oedipus that his father is "Dead and gone/ Done and dusted".

As a programme puts it, Oedipus is perhaps the one person not to suffer from the complex Freud named after him. Since hearing the fateful words of the oracle, he has done all he can to distance himself from possible parricide and incest. So is he the innocent plaything of the god? This production takes the line that the hero's fault is an overweening belief that, having solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he knows the score where knowledge is concerned. Excellent Ralph Fiennes exudes the defensive hubris of a man bent on satisfying his curiosity, even when the truth is imploding him from within. It's impossible to withhold pity, though, from the stricken figure who afterwards beseeches his terrified children to lead a life better than their father's.

The production has strength in depth. Alan Howard brings a mocking Beckettian Irish brogue to the blind seer, Tiresias. As they struggle to fend off the full horror of their position, Fiennes and Clare Higgins's superb Jocasta fall into gestures of mutual consolation that look hideously like eroticised versions of the mother-son relationship. An impressive, harrowing evening.

Conceived and directed by Britain's greatest theatre-maker, Simon McBurney, Complicité's A Disappearing Number won all last year's awards for best play. It's back at the Barbican, and even better. Finding deep metaphors in mathematics, the show interweaves stories around the real-life collaboration between the Cambridge don GH Hardy and the young, self-taught Brahmin genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who defied his caste and accepted Hardy's invitation to come to work with him in England at the time of the Great War.

In the production's first incarnation, this primary story – which ends with the early death of Ramanujan back in India – seemed to take second place to a complementary narrative about Al, an American futures dealer, and his wife Ruth, a mathematician besotted by Ramanujan and desperately aware of the short shelf-life of maths boffins and the inexorable ticking of the biological clock. Without at all demoting that strand, this version gives a much more involving texture and urgency to the Hardy/Ramanujan collaboration. We see them, for example, working at fever pitch trying to find a predicative formula for the way numbers "partition" or subdivide within themselves – with all the symbolic applications of that concept to other areas of life.

A miracle of multimedia poetry, the piece fervently dramatises Hardy's fundamental perception that "a mathematician, like a poet or a painter, is a maker of patterns". Complicité's great forte is for taking ideas that could seem abstract and remote and uncovering the visceral connection between them and the psychological and emotional. We witness the infinitely convergent series of numbers become an emotional metaphor for a couple anxiously wanting a child, or ponder whether nought divided by itself equals one or infinity. Essential viewing.

'Oedipus', in rep to 4 January (020-7452 3000); 'A Disappearing Number', to 1 November (020-7638 8891)

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen