This brilliant two-hander is a superbly acted exploration of love and the influence of nature versus nurture.
How much of who you are is controlled by your genetics? Is your behaviour mainly defined by your upbringing, or by the sequence of DNA encoded into your very cells? These are the questions raised by Caryl Churchill in her 2002 play, A Number, here receiving its Welsh premiere. Using a traverse stage featuring only a doorway, a chair and basic overhead lights, this simple production is nevertheless devastatingly effective. As the play begins we are introduced to the grizzled Salter (Brendan Charleson) and his grown up son Bernard (Stevie Raine). Bernard has recently discovered that he may not be “the original” version of himself, and there could be “A number” of other identical copies.
As the play progresses it is slowly revealed that Salter is less of an innocent victim of a rogue “mad scientist”, and more complicit in his desire to create another son; to try and re-write the fractured and difficult relationship with his “original” son. As each scene progresses, we peel back the layers of Salters lies to get to the truth of the matter – who is his son and why were copies made? Salter is unreliable in his depiction of events, chosing instead to lie to his sons in order to preserve some semblance of rationality for his actions. It is revealed that he was an absent, even neglectful father to his “first” son, and is deperately attempting to to right the wrongs of the past by “re-doing” fatherhood. Yet things are rarely as simple as that, and as things spiral out of control, Salter has to come to terms with the fact that his influence on his sons may have damaged them. Charleson is excellent as the regretful Salter, his performance a masterclass of subtlety and simplicity. Even when not speaking, Charleson’s presense is magnetic and utterly transfixing.
Raine plays several versions of Salter’s son – the “original”, the “replacement”, as well as another of the “number” of clones living unaware in the world, and gives a phenomenal performance as each individual son. With only simple changes in costume, Raine uses everything from the intonation and accent of his voice, to his posture, stance and small idiosnyracies to completely transform himself in a fraction of a second from one character to the other. The performances are what truly makes this an excellent production. Lines of dialogue zip between Charleson and Raine, crashing and colliding across the space; as an audience member you watch on mesmerised, head darting from one end of the narrow stage to the other. The use of the traverse stage is an excellent bit of design – the physical distance between the characters on stage a perfect representation of the closeness of the characters themselves. It also allows a level of intimacy not possible with other types of staging.
Written partly as a response to the Dolly the Sheep cloning saga, A Number steers clear of the moral questions behind cloning itself and instead looks at the human element it. Using science as a springboard to discuss the human elements of identity, of uniqueness and of the power of nurture, A Number powerfully argues that while genetics can influence some parts of our life, it is how we are raised that can have a more profound impact on who we become. While the two sons raised by Salter are damaged in various ways; unhappy, resentful and lonely, the son we meet who has been raised seperately to Salter’s influence appears happy and well rounded. In this simple production, director Ed Madden has coaxed phenomenal performances from his cast and created a breathless and thought provoking hour of live theatre.
A Number is running at the Other Room until 3rd March. Tickets are available here
It is part of The Other Room‘s Spring Season, LOVESICK, which also includes All But Gone by Matthew Trevannion (23/03-14/04) and The Effect by Lucy Prebble (24/04-12/05). More information about the season can be found here.