THE COMPUTER COUNTESS
It’s a topical, Tim-Hunt-tastic moment to celebrate one of the forgotten women of science, and the Edinburgh University Theatre companyhave hit on a cracking good story. Ada Lovelace (her married name, she was a Countess) was Lord Byron’s daughter, his only legitimate child, by the clever and mathematically gifted Anne Milbanke. Who, understandably, left him, what with the sibling-incest and the philandering. She raised Ada to be a femme serieuse: the child’s daring imagination may have come from the absent Dad, and she fought her mother over the idea of “poetical science”, but her hard gift for mathematics led her to collaborate with Charles Babbage, first father of computing. He was working on his huge clattering cog and wheel “Engine” (nicely evoked here in huge noisy projections) and dreamed of a still bigger Analytical Engine .
Ada brought her skill to his work, but also that poetical imagination about its possibilities: she is credited with creating the first algorithm, and with pushing the idea that in the future, computers might be able to work with things beyond mere numerical calculation. He called her “ a fairy who cast a magical spell over the most abstract of sciences’. She said “My intellect will keep me alive!”. What Lady Lovelace would make of the age of Instagram yoga selfies and click-porn doesn’t bear thinking of.
But it was a hell of a life, cut short at 36, and there is gold in her writings, from childhood dreams of flight to a fiery correspondence with Babbage (“I cannot stand another person to meddle in my sentences!” – yep Ada, I know the feeling.) He and she apparently started a horserading syndicate late on, victims of the common delusion that there is a System, and lost money at it. In this production’s rareish moments of clarity – either biographical or computer science lecturettes – it becomes fascinating. The six- strong student group, however, unfortunately opt for a sour, pretentiously ‘devised’, black-clad, mimetic- symbolic interpertation, full of showy lifts and fallings to the ground. It is a theatrical idiom which only works at the very top of its game. Not here, alas. The show claims itself to take the form of an algorithm, but …no. . So while I am immensely grateful to have learned of the lady, and have looked her up like mad ever since, the show barely gets off the starting block. But what a cerebrally adventurous story, what a feminist pioneer yarn! I was going to say, bring on a Frayn or Stoppard to do a less drama-schooly version; but hey, the old boys have done their time. Give the story to James Graham. Or Lucy Prebble. Use more of the contemporary letters. Shine a light on Ada the Algorithm lady, not on outworn theories of theatrical form. http://www.edfringe.com to 30 aug rating two