Last week, The Edge’s culture editor had the opportunity interview the director of A Number, Michael Longhurst. The play starts its run in The Nuffield Theatre on 6th February.
RJ: One of the things that jumped out at me when I came to the Nuffield relaunch night was A Number, so I was wondering what drew you to the project?
ML: I mainly work in new writing, but A Number is a play that I read ten years ago, and I think that Caryl Churchill is a playwriting god. Her plays are so ahead of the curve, and I think that it’s extraordinary that ten years on the plays still feel ahead of the curve, in terms of the science around it. But also, it’s such a cleverly constructed play, it’s just a two hander, and it’s only an hour long, but she packs more into it… On one level it’s a sci-fi thriller about cloning and the ethical issues surrounding that, and it’s also a heartbreaking father-son drama. It’s a meditation on identity; she uses the device of cloning to really ask some questions: who are we? What makes us up? Our genes? Our behaviour? Our character? I think that it’s a really fascinating, meaty play, and it’s done in a very clever, very erudite, very stylish kind of frame which makes it very exciting to do. And then I was very excited to hear that Southampton is a world leader in biomedicine and epigenetics, so it felt like a very exciting opportunity to bring this play to the Nuffield.
I saw in the press release that you are staging the play to have the audience on stage, and I was wondering what inspired that, and what you hoped to achieve with it?
We wanted to take the opportunity to, I guess, create the most exciting relationship between the audience and the play itself. We thought – because it’s a very intimate play – that there was an opportunity to create a bit of an event, and to make the audience much more complicit and much closer to the action, which doing it in a traditional way wouldn’t allow. The play is all about accountability and guilt, and so I don’t want to give too much away about the design, but we’ve created an experience for the audience that will really challenge how they perceive the play, and make them feel much more active in the watching of it, which I hope will be exciting.
How have rehearsals gone so far? I know that you are on the lead up to opening night now.
It’s great. It’s been the first time I’ve directed a real life father and son, so it’s very interesting. Usually when you start rehearsals nobody knows anyone, or actually if people know each other it’s that the director knows an actor very well because they’ve worked with them before. It was strange for me not to know them, and for them to have such a tight relationship, although they’ve never worked together, so I think they’ve been getting used to – rather than seeing each other as father and son – seeing each other as co-actors. When the idea came to us that we could get a real life father and son to do it, I wondered if it would just feel like a marketing ploy, just an easy way to get father-son likeness on stage, which obviously they have in abundance. But actually it’s given an incredible authenticity to hear characters arguing with ‘are you really my father?’ and ‘yes I promise you, I’m genetically your father’, and then for them to actually be father and son, it really makes the play resonate out from that point, so it’s been really exciting to get into that. It’s such a good, dense play, she uses her punctuation really precisely, almost like verse, so you can mine into it to discover how she wants the thoughts constructed within the characters mouths. It’s great. We’re ready to bring it down and try it on the set, which will throw up a whole level of challenges, because we’re using mirrors and microphones and all sorts of things, which will just give the play another level of experience, and tools for us to exploit. I can’t wait to start doing that.
What’s your favourite part of working on the production been so far?
With any show I love the moment once you think you’ve cracked the design, and we’ve gone as bold as we can with this one. This has really challenged both Tom and myself. There’s always a moment when you go ‘lets see how this comes out in the outing’ and that was exciting, and nerve wracking, but it was thrilling to have that opportunity. And then it’s been a real joy in the rehearsals to dig into the text and try and create these characters, and explore what it is to be in a world where cloning is possible.
You mentioned about having the father and son duo, how has that changed the dynamic in rehearsals?
It’s allowed us just to dive in very fearlessly, they don’t have to get to know each other, they trust each other completely, and so they can be very brave in their acting choices. That’s been a huge advantage. They are very able to talk about the work and negotiate each other, and help each other, and dig towards the most exciting version of the play that we can find, because they are so willing to cooperate, so able to cooperate with each other, so that’s been the most exciting thing. And as I mentioned, it’s been a real thrill to feel the play resonate more deeply when you actually know that it’s a father and son, given that that’s one of the major themes of the play.
Finally, I just wanted to ask you how you think this will appeal to the Southampton student audience, with the Nuffield being on the university campus?
I hope that this will really appeal. It’s something that, as a new associate of the Nuffield, we’ve been wanting to create – a piece of work that would really engage the students. So what we’ve done is create a programme of really bold pieces of work, so it’s not a fusty Restoration comedy, or anything traditional. The play is about cutting edge science, it’s really dramatic, it’s a thriller. We’re going to do something hopefully really exciting in terms of the audience and how they experience the play; you won’t be entering the theatre in the same way, you’ll go on a journey just to get to the performance space. It should feel very different. Caryl Churchill writes these amazing plays that can be really ‘out there’, and this is a really exciting one that hopefully anyone with adventurous tastes will be up for. We’re exploring feelings, and the design aesthetic with the set will feel really fresh and modern.
Yes, it was one thing I noticed, talking to friends who aren’t English students, that they were quite engaged with the ideas of the play.
What she does is take all the most exciting things in sci fi, but actually, she’s only just pushing us beyond the boundaries of our science. We can, and do, clone animals regularly, but this is just taking it a fraction further, so it’s not walking off into a fantasy where anything can happen, it’s just pushing our world a little bit farther, to imagine ‘what if’? I think by pushing it that little bit, and asking ‘what if’, it makes us more conscious of what is happening in our lives and how we feel about that. It’s exciting to think about being pushed over that boundary, which in fifty years we could have easily crossed, so I think that really exciting.
‘A Number’ is at the Nuffield Theatre from 6th-22nd of February. To find out more, and to book tickets, click here.