Ada is an Edinburgh University Theatre Company production, performed in the company’s home theatre. And, with the University’s School of Informatics (‘The study of natural and engineered computational systems’) just 5 minutes’ walk away, that’s the natural spot for a show about Ada Lovelace – the nineteenth-century female mathematician whom The New Yorker dubbed ‘The First Tech Visionary’. It’s a clever, forward, and complex work, and no doubt it was exciting to devise.
In summary, Ada is the story of a life shared between poetry and mathematics. The daughter of Lord Bryon, whom she never knew, Lovelace inherited the Romantic idea of the imagination as ‘the discovering faculty’ and applied it to numbers – or as she put it, to ‘the science of operations’. We, in our time, have the iPhone or Windows 10; in hers it was Charles Babbage’s ‘Difference Machine’ and ‘Analytical Engine’.
The imagery is binary, black-white, sequencing; by turns rapid and deliberate. The seven performers switch between roles as varied as mechanical cogs and a raucous crowd at the races (Ada ventured, disastrously, into calculating odds). Screen displays alternate between algorithms and journal entries. Young Ada is lifted high to fly like a bird, but ends on the ground bent double in pain. We're cheerily told “We’ll explain how a computer works” – but by the close, at Ada’s deathbed, we’re listening to tear-jerking sentiment from Charles Dickens.
Technically, it’s on the button and has significant impact. Petals assemble as algebraic patterns, and the use of projection, video and video-playback is striking. But the overall effect is highly schematic, and the actors have too few lines to show what they can do. The narrative is sustained in bits rather than scenes, which I guess might be the point, but the effect is too-much-information in not enough time; I wanted more parlour drama and less coded meaning.
Which brings me to colour and costume. The EUTC flyer depicts Ada half as a printed circuit, and half as a creative doodle, which makes sense enough. But why no eighteenth-century dress for our heroine? I would have thought that Ada with early Victorian corsage would have been a strong image against the mathematically-inspired computer graphics, and it’s strange to imply that you can’t be a chic geek without a black T-shirt and loose trousers.
All in all, Ada is a committed and original presentation… but at times, it felt a bit too much like an elaborate spreadsheet which had somehow got on stage.