A Number Of Good Thingsby Matthew Blackman / Images by Jesse Kramer / 17.10.2011
The difficulty with a play about confused identity is that one can get confused about identity – particularly when one actor plays more than one character. But in Caryl Churchill’s A Number the confusion over which character is being played by the same actor is essential to the theme of the play itself.
This confusion is enacted by the well-known British father and son team of Timothy and Samuel West who play a father and son (or to be more correct ‘sons’). West senior plays a man who, partly due to his own fault, lost his wife and child. His solution to this is to have his son cloned. However, the doctors, unbeknownst to him, make twenty copies of the boy, rather than the requested single genetic remake. When clone 1 discovers that he is merely an edition of twenty, the questioning begins.
What makes the The Fugard’s staging of Churchill’s work important is how it shows the marked difference between British theatre and our own – it is not an over simplified morality tale or Shakespeare or Waiting for Godot. The difference is not only in how the play is performed, without overstated adumbrations, but also how Caryl Churchill went about writing it. She does not seem to have ruminated on the ethics of cloning and then offered an overstated exegesis of this moral quandary. Instead Churchill offers the story as a heuristic to understanding the dilemmas and confusions surrounding multiple persons sharing exactly the same genetic makeup. And A Number offers no one pronouncement, rather one is left with each clone’s different understandings of the ‘future shock’ of being confronted with the idea of their doppelganger.
The play questions notions of personal identity, teasing at, almost concluding, and then restating the problem of, ‘what is individuality?’ When clone 3 – the one who is most comfortable in his skin – is asked if he can describe something that is unique to him, he can only offer thoughts and feelings that are the quotidian of the majority of humans. It seems that there is nothing that makes ‘I’ uniquely ‘I’. Yet this is not the play’s conclusion, because clones 1, 2 and 3 are all shown to be markedly different people.
A Number does not dictate a single point of view or a single interpretation. It also, thankfully, does not rely on gimmicks and is brilliantly acted by the exceptional British duo. The set, one chair on a stage, and costumes, sartorial everydays, are not distractions from the text, which, despite its chatty and humourous nature, contains numerous complexities. Churchill’s play does not tell you anything you know and want to hear again, it is challenging and on this count alone is worth seeing.
The finest recommendation for the play is, however, that, unlike every South African production one goes to, there was no standing ovation. The audience was seemingly not filled with the sentiment of ‘ag shame, how clever of those actors to have remembered nearly all of those words’. Rather, it seemed, the people there last night, like myself, sat contemplative and subdued for a short period after it ended, considering and questioning what had happened for the last fifty minutes.
*A Number is currently running at The Fugard Theatre.