The Royal Court Theatre presents
A Number ( Archived )
By Caryl Churchill
23 September - 16 November 2002
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Director Stephen Daldry
Pictured (L to R): Daniel Craig; Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon; Michael Gambon
Photography by Ivan Kyncl
Direction: Stephen Daldry; Design: Ian MacNeil; Costume Design: Joan Wadge; Lighting: Rick Fisher; Sound:Ian Dickinson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon
‘Rarely in my theatre-going experience has a new play conveyed such a disturbing or enthralling impression of domestic weirdness that some families may endure in a not entirely hypothetical future.
‘A Number by Caryl Churchill is the first true play of the 21st century. It’s an hour-long experiment in prediction, a meditation upon identity, a sort of nightmare imagining of what the magic of science, in relation to cloning, may one day require of our hearts and minds.
‘Might not, however; as A Number suggests, nurture triumph over Nature’s help-mate – the cloning procedure? If many copies of a human could be made might not all of them still be different under the skin: might not their minds and personalities develop according to the circumstances in which they were reared?
‘Ian MacNeil’s bare, blank design – a wooden square built over the stage floor – has no relations to domestic realism. Life floats free. You imagine the place where Sir Michael Gambon’s moustached Salter; wearing an ordinary suit and an extraordinary expression of distracted furtivenes, welcomes Daniel Craig as his anxious, middle-class thirtysomething son – B2 in clone-speak, or Bernard. The language is futuristic too – sentences incomplete, compressed, abbreviated in a kind of shortish hand. Salter, a duplicitous, Ibsenish figure with a past., claims B2 is an adored clone, created after his wife and first son were killed in a car-crash. As for the scientists who built too many clones, perhaps compensation is the answer.
‘But then Miss Churchill stages her first terrific coup de theatre and the supposedly dead son appears – Daniel Craig in threatening, cockney mode. Salter changes his story about cloning with quite disastrous repercussions.
‘The practice of human cloning offers according to his magical, mystery tour of the future, a way for a delinquent parent to cancel his mistakes. Stephen Daldry’s wonderful production, rich in images of father-son tenderness, tension and grief, is dominated by Craig. With eloquent, economic emotional touches he makes the son and two clones distinct individuals. And Sir Michael, although a little too stagey, powerfully expresses Salter’s rueful anxiety. It’s an astonishing event.’
‘Caryl Churchill never stands still. After the dystopian nightmare of Far Away, she now comes up with a challenging form of moral inquiry. And the key question she asks in this play is from what the essential core of self derives: from nature or nurture, genetic inheritance or environmental circumstance?
‘ there are five scenes in which a father, Salter, confronts three of his adult sons. Bernard One is wild, violent, menacing and was taken into care at the age four two years after his mother’s death. From the cells of this child a doctor created Bernard Two who is the physical match but psychological antithesis of his ‘brother’. To Salter’s horror, however, this experiment has led to a series of cloned sons one of whom he apprehensively meets.
‘But the success of the evening lies in Churchill’s ability to raise big moral issues through the interstices of close human encounters.’
‘Caryl Churchill’s magnificent new play only lasts an hour but contains more drama, and more ideas, than most writers manage in a dozen full-length works.
‘Part psychological thriller, part topical scientific speculation, and part analysis of the relationship between fathers and their sons, it combines elegant structural simplicity with an astonishing intellectual and emotional depth.
‘Add stunning performances from Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, and a lean, powerful production by Stephen Daldry, and you have one of the most spell-binding – and challenging – theatrical events of the year.
‘ Churchill is one of the most original and unpredictable of dramatists, and part of the pleasure of her work is going into the theatre, and not having the faintest clue about what to expect.
‘The play is in part an analysis of the nightmare scenarios that might develop if human cloning moves from the realm of scientific possibility into the realm of scientific fact. But Churchill digs much deeper, turning her play into a fascinating analysis of the nature versus nurture debate.
‘What makes this play so special is that ideas of the cutting edge of scientific experiment and philosophical inquiry are turned into gripping, at times emotionally shattering, drama.
‘Churchill introduces new information and sudden twists with each new scene, and though some of the dramatic developments are startling, the more I think about this play, the more plausible Churchill’s mind-stretching scenario. Seems.
‘Though often upsetting, A Number also strikes me as an optimistic play. Scientific determinists like to argue that we are effectively doomed by our genetic inheritance. Churchill disputes this, eventually moving far beyond the ostensible subject of cloning to asks the most profound questions of all: what is it that makes us what we are, how responsible are we for our actions, and can we change the way we behave? Her answers to all these questions strike me as wise, humane and hopeful.
‘Gambon, looking crumpled, wounded and at times downright livid, is in magnificent form as the troubled father, confronted by both an intolerable present and a guilt-racked past, yet somehow showing how paternal love can survive in even the most traumatic circumstances.
‘Daniel Craig gives a virtuosic display as three of his identical sons, brilliantly suggesting just how differently each of them has turned out.
‘What a tremendous play this is, moving thought-provoking and dramatically thrilling.’
‘Caryl Churchill’s power to grip an audience is an extra-ordinary thing. Her plays perform a pincer-movement on your attention. Their ear for a subject of real concern out there in the world – feminism in Top Girls, Thatcherism in Serious Money – has always been acute, and often prescient. Their formal invention is teasing, beguiling. These are plays which don’t merely debate issues: they embody them.’
‘It’s crisp, taut and all over in 60 emotionally charged minutes. I wish it could have been longer.’
‘Churchill proceeds to ask question after question about genes, free will, the impact of upbringing and environment and human identity itself. She could go deeper, perhaps but she is never preachy or dull, always terse, suggestive and arresting. There is, after all, no more original and skilful dramatist at work.’
‘The starting point for the play is the immovable contradiction that something as unique as human life can also be run off a conveyor belt. The starting point for the father is that he was allowed a second chance at perfection, and ruined it. Michael Gambon plays him as a figure of Samson-like proportions, in a posture of despair held bolt upright by parental passion.
‘His ability to switch from volcanic wrath to heart-broken gentleness is matched in the text by speeches beginning with get-rich fantasies and ending with offers of suicide. Fully Gambon’s emotional equal, Daniel Craig plays the three sons – at first leaving you to guess which is which, but finally presenting them in implacable, opposition that prepares the way for murder. A tragedy for its characters, the play also asserts the survival of human individuality. It is an awesome event.’
JERWOOD THEATRE DOWNSTAIRS