We all know the disconcerting feeling of catching a surprise glimpse of yourself in an unexpected mirror, and for a split second thinking it was another person. The questions raised in A Number are what you would do if that double turned out not just be a reflection and instead be made of flesh and blood.
Caryl Churchill’s play A Number, that was first performed 15 years ago at a time when the ethics of cloning was at the forefront of debate, has been revived as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival (EISF).
The play looks at the contentious issue through a futuristic confrontation between a father, Salter, (Peter Forbes) and his son, Bernard (Brian Ferguson) after the revelation that at some time in the past, several clones had been made of him, only one of which was with Salter’s knowledge. To have a single clone of yourself walking the world is one thing, and as Bernard says, ‘any number is a shock’, but it transpires that there are at least 22 copies living lives out there.
The play’s sudden opening feels like a brutal intrusion into a very private and intense exchange that’s taking place in a space created to look like a house, void of any personal effects - a tabula rasa waiting to take on its inhabitants’ characters, in itself the symbol of a clone. The narrative takes the form of short bursts of unfinished dialogue during which the men don’t use each other’s names. Scene changes are signalled by startling electronic music and startling sounds like a giant light bulb exploding.
Stark lighting shifts to a warmer tone with the appearance of clone number 3, Michael Black, a contented, optimistic chap with a wife, children and a decent job, getting on with his life despite his new knowledge of his origins and potential ‘siblings’.
The facts of this disturbing past experiment are revealed in a non-linear fashion across the 55 minutes. Brian Ferguson brings passion and conviction to all three roles though there is an understandable blurring as to which Bernard is which with no costume change. It is the same person after all, but with different life experiences – essentially the same son, but with a father who’s tried to behave differently.
This is a grim tale dripping with lies, legal threats and chilling possibilities that poses a multitude of questions on who and what we are and what forms us as human beings. It is necessarily inconclusive, but the resulting tragedy of this particular female free world should in itself be salutary.
A series of related pre-show talks will take place throughout the play’s run. Details at www.lyceum.org.uk/number.
8 – 15 April 2017 at 8.30pm