A Number by Caryl Churchill and directed by Zinnie Harris is at The Lyceum Theatre as part of The Edinburgh International Science Festival (6th to 15th April), and is an interesting, if lightly touched upon at times, exploration into many of the questions that at the moment have no real answers surrounding the ever drawing closer scientific reality of human cloning.
Although this work dates from 2002 and the science behind the story has moved on enormously in the passing of the years, the many questions here remain as unanswered and unanswerable as they were first time round as we explore the nature of self identity, self uniqueness, and that age old question of “nature or nurture” as the developmental factor in any human being.
“A Number” is a two person play that opens with our father and son starting to deal with a long hidden truth that has just surfaced. The father, Salter played by Peter Forbes, has to finally admit to his much loved adult son Bernard (played by Brian Ferguson) that he is a clone of his earlier son. The matter is further complicated by the fact that this discovery of his genetic origins by Bernard has also revealed that there are more him out there (19 as it it later turns out)…who exactly is he now, that is the big question, and a question brought sharply home to him by his father referring to the others whom he knows nothing about as “things”.
This is a story that skims along the water’s surface of some very difficult questions and in so doing raising some interesting splashes, but there just is not time here to explore any of them in any real depth. Our initial explanation as to the cloning event by the father takes us in a direction which itself could easily have developed into a completely different story, but as the story here develops, the real reason for the cloning unfolds and it takes us into far darker realms of a very flawed human being thinking that somehow they can be a better parent this time if they can start again from fresh, discarding along the way of course their old mistakes. Peter Forbes is effective here as the defensive parent who must face many uncomfortable things that he has done in his past, but somehow the story does not give him a chance to really explore that very dark inner self and we are left with so many questions. Later events in the story reveal an attitude to events that to me prove that he has not changed at all under the surface veneer of respectability and model fatherhood.
Brian Ferguson as the cloned son, the original, and other versions gets to explore in more depth the subtle differences that a different environmental and social upbringing make to what we all recognise as a person and an individual, and this is done with a gentle touch on stage…yes, he looks the same as others, but he is clearly different. Each of the different aspects of people react in completely different ways to the discovery that they are no longer unique human beings in the genetic sense. Of course the big question here is “Is it only our genetic make up that defines us as a unique human individual?”
An interesting story performed by two skilled actors, but for me, there was little new here and so many questions are not asked. Many of the questions raised here have been raised many times in many science fiction genre formats over the years, although this work does raise the questions in an interesting way. So many questions left unanswered though…the relationship between the father and his original son over the years, the method used to birth our clones is not discussed at all, and one of the biggest questions from a theological point of view is not even discussed – if you believe that God is the creator of life and that every life has a unique and immortal soul, can a clone created by man without God’s help have a soul? Also, what sort of legal identity would a clone have – would they even be classed as “human”? Could an original human being be charged for murder if he killed a copy of himself for example?....so many questions here that time maybe just did not allow us to explore.
Brian Ferguson through multiple identities on stage always had the more interesting part in this play and more room to explore some of the issues raised, and the underlying answer seems to be that yes we can replicate the genetic imprint of someone, but not their personality…that is a far more indefinable aspect of human identity and human uniqueness.
Review by Tom King