It may be the second time in as many years that Caryl Churchill’s A Number has been performed in the West End, but it is a play that bears restaging, yielding greater insights every time you see it. While its surface level explores the consequences of human cloning, written at a time of considerable media outrage at the scientific practice, its central story of a father and his sons remains universal and infinitely adaptable. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Churchill provides the scenario and the frame but allows each new company to see the play afresh, making their mark with perceptible changes in tone that fundamentally alter its emotional resonance. What could be a very clinical piece can also be deeply human.
Structured across five brief chronological scenes, A Number uses three separate but parallel interactions between Salter, the man who cloned a child 35-years previously, and three of those sons – Bernard 1, Bernard 2 and Michael – in what becomes a complex two-hander about the nature of parenthood, second chances, the mechanics of individuality and self as well as the ethics of cloning. Which of those aspects a director chooses to emphasise allows the central premise to be re-pitched and reconceived with every staging as Churchill’s text, though fundamentally the same, evokes new meanings and depth.
But it is also a play about character and the extent to which the audience can believe or trust the information they are being given at any point in the play and Churchill deliberately shifts the tempo in each of the father-son confrontations, revealing new insights and story points that cast doubt on things that were said in a previous scene that has significant consequences for both the established and nascent relationships between the men. Quite why this misinformation is given Churchill leaves to us and the company to interpret, offering open discussions not only about the ethics of cloning but how that wider context of morality is reflected in specific, domestic character choices and behaviours.
Two years ago Polly Findlay’s production at the Bridge Theatre with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan placed Salter in the spotlight, making him seem sinister and possibly even dangerous against the very homely interior design of the living room where most of the play takes place. Salter, in Allam’s performance, lied easily and deliberately for his own ends, to prevent difficult conversation and because fundamentally he is a man with limited feeling whose past choices rightly come back to haunt him. Churchill’s play became a story about someone who didn’t deserve to be a parent and engineered a perfect child because he lacked the skill, capacity and interest in the reality of complicated fatherhood.
This new production at the Old Vic directed by Lyndsey Turner has a very different perspective on Salter and gives the character considerably greater empathy and understanding while still acknowledging the severity and consequences of his faults. Lennie James’s Salter is capable of far greater feeling, overwhelmed by the impact of his choice to clone his only son and genuinely bemused by the sudden appearance of multiple adult versions created without his permission by the unnamed scientists for which he genuinely feels aggrieved, consistently suggesting a lawsuit to both Bernard 1 and 2.
A Number has some extremely dark themes that explore child neglect and possible abuse, abandonment, maternal suicide and self-destruction that affect both Salter and the Bernards in different ways. The Old Vic to an extent gives Salter some benefit of the doubt as he reflects on his decision to make another identical child. The particularly revelatory second conversation with original son Bernard 1 is played from the perspective of someone who was suffering from the impact of his wife’s death and, it is suggested, various forms of substance abuse leaving him unable to take care of himself or his son. The text implies a two-year period of lone parenting that became too much for this version of Salter seemingly suffering from some kind of emotional and potentially even mental collapse.
The later decision to clone Bernard 1 then becomes more palatable having recognising the damaged he caused to a son that was ‘given away’ and, in the most generous possible reading of Salter’s character, not wanting to cause the boy further disruption by trying to get him back. Instead, Turner’s production hints that Salter took the opportunity for second chances all round, giving original Bernard a better life elsewhere while Salter himself tries – and we discover largely succeeds – to do better by playing out another version of his life but at a time when he has the emotional and domestic stability to fully support the needs of a child.
What we get in the present day, then, is a sense of James’s Salter deeply affected by the rotten consequences of that decision making and deeply troubled to learn that his first born son hasn’t flourished but remains psychologically affected by the trauma of those early years. James’s Salter is far less monstrous than Allam’s cooler interpretation, showing the shock and guilt that start to overwhelm him as he faces-up to what he did while simultaneously processing the huge ramifications of having a number of identical adult sons in the world who have nothing but a DNA connection with him and the impact on his favourite second child Bernard 2.
Yet, while all of these elements exists in James’s Salter, at the same time he is not entirely the good man led astray by medical science or mere victim of his younger vices. There are still edges to Salter that prevent the audience from fully accepting or sympathising with his version of events. For all his shocked bewilderment (and we believe he had no idea about the multiple clones), he still lies to both sons in the first instance about what really happened to their mother and Bernard 1, shifting timelines to suit his current story. Possibly caught out by the sudden explosion of information and discovery of multiple children, trying to spare the Bernards’ feelings by concealing the truth, there is a readiness to protect himself above either of the children he claims to have loved that never quite squares but at the same time isn’t fully contradicted by James’s intriguingly balanced performance.
Likewise, the readiness to sue which Salter repeats multiple times during the play suggests a mind that runs quickly to potential monetary gain and Churchill is particularly elusive on this point, not quite suggesting that it would pacify Bernard 2’s distress. Even when he meets Michael in the final scene, Salter is looking for some kind of gratification, some evidence that this cloned version of his original child can satisfy his own need to connect rather than what he can bring to the lives of his family.
Churchill uses the Bernards and Michael to present a very different proposition from Salter, characters who are implicitly truthful and the audience is never given any reason to doubt the things they say or that the experiences they present truly happened. Introduced to Bernard 2 first, we see the easy, happy relationship with the father he is very close to and openly confides in. The alarm he feels at discovering he has been cloned which establishes the premise in the opening scene, although Churchill never reveals how he found out, is eased by this first conversation and while Bernard 2 seems sensitive and gentle, it is only in a later interaction that his uncertainty is revealed.
It is here that Bernard 2 displays a considerable vulnerability and fear of his identikit other that questions his stability. He is the favourite child yet cannot remain at home, choosing to escape from what appears to be a threat to his life. It’s never clear why he doesn’t trust or allow his father to protect him but it implies a separation in the relationship that muddies the perfect idea of their relationship that the audience has been fed. And given the throwaway outcome of the play revealed in Scene Five, is Bernard 2 ‘defective’ like his brother and is that due to nature or nurture? Are we to infer that a genetic failing has passed between them or, as the final meeting with Michael suggests, that Salter is the common factor in the lives of the Bernards, that his second chance was ultimately no more successful than the first?
Bernard 1 is where the actor gets to really explore the darker side of parenthood and, played here by Papa Essiedu, the character is a troubled, nervy figure with the possibility of violence under the surface. Not quite as all-out threatening as Morgan’s version at the Bridge who seemed to have made his peace with the pain by turning it into menace, there is greater emotional exposure in Essideu’s approach showing the deep scarring and raw wound that continues to fester, haunting Bernard 1 and dominating his concept of self.
What is perhaps most interesting in Essiedu’s performance is the contrast that Michael offers in the final scene, played here as an American that Salter meets in an art gallery. Michael is unbelievably bland, unable to describe anything about himself or come up with an original thought or feeling that could allow Salter to build a connection with himself or his other sons. And while his life has been happy which we are led to conclude is because it has been untouched by Salter’s present, there is something of the Pop Art print about Michael, with Essideu playing him as a reproduction of a reproduction tapping into one of Churchill’s key themes in A Number that copies become increasingly inferior and faded at a distance from the original.
It may feel as though Churchill’s play has itself been cloned given the various versions that continue to appear; in each one the central characters are the same yet there are shaded differences with earlier incarnations. But A Number is a piece that seems to reveal more about itself every time you see it, asking complex questions about self-knowledge and individuality, whether you are you if someone else already is and Turner’s production on Es Devlin’s stark red set is certainly one of the best yet.