How do you solve a problem like Ada Lovelace? Or indeed one like Charles Babbage? These, in part, are the questions suggested by ‘Ada’, a dramatised life of the former that necessarily involves the latter.
Thankfully, perhaps, no singing nuns are called for in Melanie Phillips’ production, in which a cast of seven (aided by a lot of tech) presents something of the life and times of two who are known to most of us simply as names.
Ada Lovelace, nee Byron (yes, that one) and Charles Babbage were the nearest the nineteenth century got to producing a software and computer engineer. Babbage was already an established mathematician when he began work on what he described as an ‘analytical engine’, and in the course of his experimenting and theorising began an extensive correspondence with Ada Lovelace, as a result of which she is credited with developing an algorithm allowing calculation of a sequence of what were known as Bernoulli numbers. In addition, Lovelace translated, among other works, a paper by Luigi Menabrea based on notes taken of a talk by Babbage in Turin, adding her own comments.
We are here deep in the world of nineteenth century experimental mathematics, and it’s to the company’s credit that we do not drown in facts – it’s a considerable achievement that computation is here made accessible even to the semi-numerate, but in amongst the impressive technical effects deployed and extensive quotation from the correspondence of Lovelace and Babbage, the two principal characters as well as something of their times are lost.
‘The past is another country. They do things differently there’ observed the novelist L. P. Hartley, a fact of passing time and changing manners that seems not to have been taken sufficient account of here. To recite a letter is not enough to make the writer come alive to us, and ultimately neither Lovelace nor Babbage engage enough of our sympathies.
There’s undoubtedly a story to be told here, and the company have clearly thought a great deal about how to present the facts in this case, but what they now need to engage with are the characters.
Til 30 August (not 19, 26), 3pm