Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until 15 April 2017
Guest reviewer Hugh Simpson
Philosophical questions that have puzzled us for centuries are given a contemporary yet timeless spin in A Number, presented by the Lyceum in partnership with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The result is an intelligent, accessible, emotional and beautifully acted piece.
Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play deals with the topic of cloning, which our local resident Dolly the sheep had then brought very much into the forefront of public debate. A young man discovers that he is one of a number of clones, created when his father sought to have a copy made of his son.
That the play can still seem utterly contemporary, when cloning has been superseded in the public consciousness by other worries, shows how it also manages to deal with fundamental human concerns. While science fiction is often interested in showing us the process as well as the outcome, Churchill is decidedly vague on the details of what has actually taken place. This is carried forward into the characters – the father and son are named as Salter and Bernard in the programme, but these names seem purely arbitrary.
If little is explained about how it happened, there is correspondingly a great stress on why it did. Themes of nature versus nurture, family relationships, free will, and the very concept of identity – what it means to be human, and what it means to be one particular human – are thought-provokingly expressed, with no easy answers given.
There is a universality here that is aided considerably by the performances. Peter Forbes is complex, compelling and frighteningly believable as the father. Brian Ferguson, meanwhile, shows how to play multiple characters – individualising the different versions of the son without exaggerating the differences. He also has one moment, where he conveys desperation without moving at all, that is something quite special.
It must be pointed out to regular Lyceum-goers that this is very different from their regular mainstage productions – not least in its length. There are a couple of nagging doubts about the staging; there does seem to be an attempt to overcompensate for any feeling audiences may have at being short-changed by a 50-minute two-hander by adding a layer of portentousness. Fred Meller’s box set is effective, but Michael John McCarthy’s sound and Ben Ormerod’s lighting are used to signal scene changes a little too emphatically.
It hardly needs this layer of added drama; the excellent performances and Zinnie Harris’s exemplary direction already do justice to Churchill’s intriguing script, in a production that manages simultaneously to reassure and trouble us.