A Number

  • Caryl Churchill has written a strange and thought provoking play about personal identity and the inimitability of human relationships. If a loved one dies can they be replaced with a duplicate copy? Can we recompense for our failures in one relationship by behaving differently in a duplicate one? Can one truly make a facsimile of fraternal intimacy? Can the profoundness of human yearning for meaningful encounter with loved ones be captured in a test tube; does its mystery lay conceived in our DNA? Does individuality come from our genes or do our family and environment nurture it?

    Michael Gambon plays Salter, a man in his sixties who is looking back on life reflecting on his relationship with his son(s). He has more than one version of how he has related to his ‘only’ child, Bernard.

    If Salter was a father of only one son, then who was Bernard, played by Daniel Craig? We are introduced to more than one Bernard though out this short drama and towards the end of the play we are told that there exist at least 19 others. The first Bernard we are introduced too is Bernard (B2) who has been cloned by Salter his father to replace the earlier Bernard (B1) who he had placed in some kind of home/institution. However, the scientist who cloned Bernard secretly cloned far more than just one copy. When these Bernard’s (B1 & B2) learn of each other’s existence their self-identity is called into question and their relationship with their father becomes further distraught. Who did Salter really love? Was B2, merely a surrogate for B1? Did B2 steal B1’s place? If the cloning of children ever becomes feasible are these the type of problems families of the future will have to grapple with?

    Salter is like a character from a Harold Pinter play, his every stare, silence and look of bemusement or pained anguish expresses deep emotions that elusively flow under the surface appearance. He stands close to Bernard looking deeply into his eyes, does this intrusion into his son’s personal space imply fatherly tenderness, aggression, or a doubt over whether this really is his son stood before him. At one point he drops to the floor, but before attempting to stand again he lights up a cigarette. I was unable to understand this enigmatic father, but then this father was so terribly lost searching for his many sons.

    Daniel Craig plays three characters, Salter’s son Bernard and two of Bernard’s clones. These three characters share the same DNA, so have to look and sound identical. Despite this difficulty Craig produces a highly skilled performance as he clearly portrays each characters’ individuality with the use of accents and minute differences in movement and gesture.

    Sadly, this play fails to impress. It has the appearance of an outline for a work still in progress. The idea behind the plot is intriguing and the skeleton dances along quite happily, but sadly it is obviously missing muscle and sinews. The characters appear incomplete, and the sketches we have of them are too transient for us to truly care about them. This is a short play lasting only an hour and whilst it entertains by raising many interesting questions, it fails to evoke any emotion.

    Alan Bird

    Production photo by Ivan Kyncl

    What other critics had to say.....

    LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "An engrossing spectacle."; BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Excellent Daniel Craig...Michael Gambon’s ... fiercely intense performance." He goes on to say, "There is...no more original and skilful dramatist currently at work." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Magnificent new play.... it combines elegant structural simplicity with an astonishing intellectual and emotional depth." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The first true play of the 21st century..wonderful production, rich in images of father-son tenderness, tension and grief....an astonishing event."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    The Guardian
    The Times
    Daily Telegraph

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