A Number is great theatre that exhilarates and provokes
Dolly the sheep inspires play, writes Marianne Thamm
Fugard Theatre, 021 461 4554, until October 29
IMAGINE someone walks into a room full of people, tosses in a grand idea and walks out again. That's more or less what British playwright Caryl Churchill accomplishes with A Number, an exhilarating 50-minute philosophical and dramatic riff that provokes a range of questions and thoughts.
Churchill, regarded as one of the most significant contemporary British dramatists, wrote A Number in 2002 shortly after scientists had cloned the world's first sheep, Dolly.
Here she uses cloning as a prompt for the much larger concepts the play attempts to explore but deliberately never quite resolves. The mystery of it all - like the double helix of a strand of DNA - is what slowly and unwittingly reels the audience in. This is a play not only about secrets, lies and betrayal but also the essence of individual identity.
It takes place on a starkly lit stage with one armchair. Above, a slab of test tubes hovers like a futuristic chandelier. Here we find an obviously uneasy and evasive older man, Slater (Timothy West), being confronted by his son, Bernard 2 (Samuel West).
Bernard 2 is distressed at having learned that he is a clone, a copy of a son Slater had five years before his birth.
But there's more. Bernard 2 has discovered that the scientist who "made" him has also created at least 20 other copies. The truth unlocks for him an existential crisis of identity.
The play unfolds in five interlocking scenes in which we later meet the angry and menacing "original" Bernard 1 (also played by Samuel West), whom Slater abandoned after the death of his mother.
Without giving away too much, Bernard 1 exacts a terrible revenge for his father's attempts at "recreating" him.
Towards the end Slater meets a second clone, Michael Black, for the first time. Black is the same age as Bernard 2 but much less tortured about his origins. In fact he finds it "delightful" that he is a clone.
Inside of this triangle Churchill bounces ideas of nature versus nurture and what it might be that makes us authentic and unique. But it is also what is not in the text that resonates intellectually long afterwards.
For example Churchill's deliberate exclusion of the female or the maternal, the narcissism of procreation, the role of violence in male identity and the chauvinism of science.
This revival of the London production features Timothy and Samuel West, a father and son acting duo. It is the younger West who has to work harder here in rendering each of the characters differently. A change of clothing, gait, accent and nuance is all that is required as West fully inhabits each one.
The older West is a beautifully manipulative and emotionally withholding patriarch caught in a web of lies, recriminations and regrets.
Churchill's text gives no stage or set directions and director Jonathan Munby steers a steady course between the playwright's porous dialogue and the unusual unfolding of the story.
A Number is great theatre for those who enjoy being intellectually cajoled and provoked. And like life itself, there are no neat resolutions.