A Number by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play about the ethics of genetic cloning and an extension of the well-worn ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is a challenging text for actors. With only two performers inhabiting the stage throughout, and with radical character differences having to be portrayed with immediacy following scene transitions, the text contains within it a natural intensity which is well realised by actors Charlie Randall and Tom Smythe of Gone Rogue Productions. Despite the sweltering environment of the C Nova Studio 1 space, both bring a deftness of approach to Churchill’s fractured language.

A production which effectively raises many questions regarding the ethics of cloning, it just takes some effort to take it all in.

Though Churchill herself provides no direction for the arrangement of the stage space, this production chooses to maintain a minimalistic aesthetic, with a table and two chairs forming the sole presences, apart from the actors themselves. In this way, all prominence is given to the text itself, and it is clear that both performers are thoroughly well-rehearsed and gel naturally together on stage. Smythe’s early depiction of ‘Salter’, a man who has chosen to clone his dead son in order to have a second attempt at raising him in a better way, is proficient in its ability to flit without interruption between utter hesitancy and outright certainty, leading to our understanding of the character as an intrinsically confused figure.

Likewise, Randall’s challenge in presenting the earnest Bernard 2, the unpredictably volatile Bernard 1 (the original son, inexplicably still living) and the infuriatingly at peace Michael towards the end is made to seem straightforward, as he slips into each role with exceptional clarity. It is to Randall’s praise that he is able to draw the characters so distinctly, as much of the costume and stage proxemics remain constant. Indeed, having presented such wrought characters for much of the piece, his complete reduction into Michael provides much humour, and underlines a surprising and unexpected perspective on cloning which has been unconsidered previously in the piece.

At times, the relative stillness and verbosity of the production, relentless as the dialogue is, makes it difficult to follow precisely with due regard for each word. It is perhaps this which makes the calmness of the final episode so refreshing, though there is scope here for some more imaginative direction. All in all, this is a production which effectively raises many questions regarding the ethics of cloning, it just takes some effort to take it all in. 

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The Blurb

Caryl Churchill explores the consequences and pitfalls of the artificial creation of humans. Bernard's belief that he was an only child is shattered by the news that he has a number of cloned siblings sharing his exact DNA. In this two-man play, the balance of science and ethics becomes unsettled; the repercussions of this fall harshly on a father and his son. Churchill's exploration of human cloning also tackles the importance of role models in a child’s upbringing, and vast differences between the genetically identical Bernards shake up the plot of this drama.

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