Set against a bare stage decorated with subtle helix patterns reminiscent of DNA, from the outset there’s no question what Caryl Churchill’s play A Number is about. First performed in 2002, Zinnie Harris’s new production feels like it could easily have been written this year, tying in as it does so well with the Edinburgh International Science Festival – of which it’s here as a part.
A father is livid that his son seems to have been cloned multiple times without his knowledge or consent, and it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The several iterations of the son that we meet somehow manage to be clearly related, but temperamentally chalk and cheese. This is the sort of play where you come away with plenty to think about: how much of our behaviour is predetermined by our genes? What makes a person unique, or even interesting? And can a person really be predisposed towards bad parenting?
Harris’s production seems the product of an awful lot of excellent taste. Technically proficient, beautifully staged, subtly performed and with impressive use of silence and physicality. Brian Ferguson in particular, as the various clones of Bernard, somehow manages to clearly portray what is essentially a pair of identical twins swapping in and out in adjacent scenes, without so much as a change of costume. It’s disconcerting, an effect which is only heightened by Ben Ormerod’s uncanny lighting design; and the rest of the production feels similarly technically impressive. Peter Forbes, as Bernard’s increasingly untrustworthy father, is a compelling foil. In the background, the helix-decorated set becomes the front room of a house, then a padded cell, then a nursery. It’s the little variations, here, that make all the difference.
A Number is preceded at the Lyceum by an hour-long conversation between two people with an interest in identity, genetics, and social presentation of self. The night I went, that was between journalist and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski and musician and activist Pat Kane, talking about how personal identity is construed online.
One of the big draws of the Edinburgh International Science Festival is its wide reach, placing the sciences, and scientific communication, and the broader arts, all in the same room to see how they interact. By that brief, A Number is a great fit, and both it and the surrounding discussion are thought-provoking additions to the programme.
Photo by Aly Wight.
A Number runs at The Lyceum in Edinburgh until 15th April.