As part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Caryl Churchill’s ‘A Number’ takes the concept of human cloning and pushes it to its limit, exposing its potential for disaster. Directed by Zinnie Harris, the Lyceum’s production makes for a thought-provoking, but somewhat confusing, evening.
As a two-handed script, the play leaves no room for extraneous detail. Churchill’s distinctive, bare writing style of never quite finishing a sentence keeps the audience wanting more, reaching for more meaning and to finally understand what’s going on. The plot is a little difficult to grasp at first, but once you’ve got it, the play whisks you away into its mysteries and controversies.
It’s a play whose concerns lie far beyond science. The concept is simple: the father Salter (Peter Forbes), once an alcoholic, sends his ‘lost cause’ of a son Bernard 1 (Brian Ferguson) into foster care, and has him cloned so that he can have a second chance at raising him. Bernard 2 grows up a balanced and relatively happy man, in comparison to Bernard 1, who is damaged and violent. Unbeknownst to Salter, the scientist who performed the cloning also created ‘a number’ of other copies, raising issues on the ethics of scientific experimentation when the results have such extreme consequences.
The play is innovative in that it examines science through the lens of humanity. In watching Ferguson portray three identical versions of himself, the audience’s perception of identity and individuality is challenged. As Bernard 2 says, ‘if that’s me over there, then who am I?’ In a future where entire human beings can be replicated, what does it mean to be oneself? If Bernard 1 has selves external to his body, who is the real Bernard? Is the original clone the real person, or is it Bernard 2, in whom Salter has invested more time and attention, modelling him into the son he really wanted?
Questions of morality are raised throughout the play, most notably that of the second chance. Salter abandons Bernard 1 because alcoholism and the loss of his wife, have impeded on his ability to properly father his son. In what world is it permissible to cast one child aside, and try again with another one? And further, what is it that makes Bernard 1 so different from Bernard 2, and from their other clones? Harris skilfully takes up these questions, giving the audience a production that leaves them brimming with questions.
Ferguson, as the Bernards and their copies, was incredibly talented. He managed to play three distinct characters with different personalities, to the point that the audience didn’t have to guess which one was currently on stage. His transitions from the Bernards to Michael Black were seamless, and one can only admire his skill.
Alongside Ferguson, Forbes showed the audience a foolish, almost naïve parent, who desperately seeks to atone for his mistakes. His need to make right his mistakes is very human, and one that many can empathise with, albeit expressed in a lightly psychopathic way. In him, we see remorse, love, and an inexcusable renunciation of the parenting role.
The minimalistic style of the script was complemented by the stage design, which comprised of a single room with few props. This centred the attention of the audience entirely on the actors, which made it easier to follow the plot. The DNA-print wallpaper was a nice touch, however, nodding to the scientific aspect of the production. Scene changes were signalled by a flash of coloured light and a loud crash, which unfortunately made the audience leap out of their seats, and distracted somewhat from the main action.
As a whole, the production is well worth seeing. Though its links to the scientific aspect of cloning are perhaps overshadowed by the play’s focus on humanity, it manages to discuss complex themes such as identity, the significance of genetics, the justification of parental neglect, and individuality, with a dexterity that emphasises the importance of recognising the role of the human in scientific experimentation.