I was lucky enough to see the Nuffield’s premiere production under its new management, A Number. After interviewing the director last week, I was very intrigued to see what the creative team had done with Caryl Churchill’s extraordinary play.
A Number is a fantastic play which explores the ramifications of finding out that you are not the original one of yourself, and asks the question what if you were a clone? What if you had been cloned? Yet, while the story may be about scientific discovery on the surface, underneath it is really about the relationship between a father and son, and an exploration of identity.
With a cast of two characters any flaws can be laid excruciatingly bare, but this was not a problem in this production – both father and son, John and Lex Shrapnel, were fantastic and complimented one another throughout the performance. John Shrapnel’s performance was nuanced and captured perfectly the discomfort of the father who has to negotiate these complex issues with his son, and attempting to reconcile himself with his past actions. There is obviously the added element of the fact that the two actors are a father and son – when Lex asks ‘Are you my father’ it feels so much more poignant. If John Shrapnel is fantastic, then Lex is outstanding. Playing both the original Bernard, and two of his clones, his ability to demonstrate who he is playing without spelling it out is truly commendable. His posture and speech patterns indicate exactly which character he is playing, without the need for cumbersome props or costume changes. He adds an element of menace to the ‘original’ Bernard which at times left my heart in my throat.
Caryl Churchill’s script is something special, and this production has taken full advantage of the material The pauses and breaks in the speech were poignant as the characters try to navigate their way around the situation they are in, as their language breaks down as they try to find the right words – the idea that clones might be called ‘things’, and the constant avoidance of the word ‘clone’ and even names to a certain extent. All this emphasises the difficulties and complexities of the situation, and each break and evasion hits the audience as they try to navigate their ways around the situation mentally themselves.
The staging itself was simple yet innovative – at its core it was a bare stage with a single chair and two actors, although the overall staging is more complex than that, it needs to be experienced to be fully understood. This simplicity focused attention completely upon the actors, and the action on stage. There was a sense that the audience were onlookers in the viewing section of an observation room, because they were on stage, creating a sense of complicity, as if we were the scientists watching everything that happens, as if we were documenting it, and investigating this cloning experiment. It certainly makes you feel part of the action in the play in a far more intimate way, and I applaud the ingenuity that produced such an innovative and unusual staging arrangement.
The play is a short one, running at approximately an hour, but it is one which is packed fully of drama and tension. The tension mounts throughout, creating an extreme environment for the audience, to the point where I felt like I was on a knife’s edge with every unusual sound made in the theatre.
Ultimately, when my companion and I left the theatre we were left with questions, and an unwavering sense of unease, which I think is an indicator of really good theatre. The show was truly engaging, and I could not recommend it any more highly.
10/10 – a fantastic play which should not be missed.
A Number is performed in the Nuffield theatre until 22nd February.