'A Number' review or 'How many lottery tickets can we buy?'
A Number, Caryl Churchill
Young Vic Theatre, 7th July 2015
Remember the uproar about Dolly the sheep and cloning at the end of the 90s? ‘A Number’ (written in 2002) is Caryl Churchill’s response to this moment – only it doesn’t involve any sheep. Churchill wouldn’t look at an issue directly, even if you sat her in a chair and attached a tiny tunnel between her and said subject. She is the queen of beautifully probing misdirection. ‘A Number’ explores the ethics of cloning – but also the essence of identity – through a series of conversations between a father and his ‘real’ and cloned sons. It is a spooky and jolting play, which director Michael Longhurst drip-feeds to the audience with exquisite precision. It will leave you dazed and uncertain of yourself, your response, your very bleeding soul.
Tom Scutt’s design is a humdinger. Audience members are allocated numbers (bit gimmicky) and seated in four sections around the stage. In front of us is a blind, which stays down for the first few moments of the show. Perhaps this temporary-blinding is meant to suggest how much we rely on visuals to assess character (or perhaps - as it turns out - it's a technical hitch) but it’s very frustrating. Luckily, the blind goes up soon enough and a small bare stage space (surrounded by four glass panes) is revealed. We are seated behind one pane and although we can see the two men inside, they cannot see us. Instead, the actors are surrounded by four mirrors which cast endless reflections that bounce back as far as the eye can see.
In the first scene, a son (Lex Shrapnel) anxiously confronts his father, Salter (John Shrapnel, real-life dad). The son – Bernard 2 – has found out that he is a clone. There are shed loads of other Bernards out there in the world and it is, understandably, freaking out Bernard (‘Don’t they say you die if you see yourself?’) In later scenes, the ‘real’ Bernard 1 appears, played by the same actor, although invested with a totally different physicality and personality. The sons prowl about the stage, bounce off the walls and stare imploringly or threateningly at their reflection and at us beyond. They ask big, important and impossible questions that their father – cunning, cowardly and cruel – cannot answer.
The idea of nature versus nurture flares up in the father and sons’ cramped little cage. We discover that Bernard 1 was an unruly chap, treated badly by his father and sent off to care. Bernard 2 represented a second chance for Salter; he treated his son much more kindly and a ‘better’, softer Bernard emerged. What does this say about the way in which character is formed? How much of us is innate and how much is merely a reflection of the way we have been treated? In between the scenes the lights explode and the mirror in front of us turns reflective. The lighting shifts and the reflection in the mirror grows stronger and clearer. We are forced to look at ourselves and it is strange and frightening. The skin begins to crawl.
In a final scene, Salter meets another clone of his son, who seems amazingly unfazed by the whole scenario. He is happy with his life. He is happy not to ask questions. Salter presses this man to identify something that is exclusively ‘him’ but all he gets in response is that his 'son' likes to wriggle around in bed and loves his wife’s ears. As hard as Salter pushes, this guy comes up short. No matter how deep inside he reaches, he cannot find the ‘thing’ that makes him – well – him. We chuckle at this man’s simple responses but a cool darkness quietly spreads through us. What would we say? And why was it that when those mirrors turned reflective, we quickly turned away from ourselves and focused on those around us?