A Number

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

27/05/2006 - 24/06/2006

Production Details

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Bruce Phillips

In this brilliant hour long play, Caryl Churchill delves into the subject of human cloning.

“What if you were to suddenly see yourself  coming round the corner?” asks Bernard 2 of his father when he discovers, to his horror, that he is only one in a number of genetically identical sons. Is Bernard 2 the original son – or a copy? And what will happen when two other versions arrive at the door?

A Number fearlessly looks at the ethical minefield of genetic engineering, the timeless debate of nature vs nurture and presents them as a searing family drama that gives up more and more secrets as Salter, the father, is forced to reveal the anguished choices he has made and the damage he has caused. 

Tue – Sat 7.30pm; Sun 4.30pm
Adults $35
Students, senior citizens & beneficiaries $28
Friends of Circa $26
Groups 6+ $30
Under 25’s $20
Bookings 801 7992 or Online

SALTER          Ray Henwood
BERNARD      Jason Whyte
BERNARD      Jason Whyte
MICHAEL      Jason Whyte

Production team
Set Design       Bruce Phillips
Light Design
  & operation   Jennifer Lal
Costumes &
  set dressing   Donna Jefferis
Publicity          Suzy O'Brien

Theatre ,


The painful truth when one into three won’t go

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 29th May 2006

The beauty of Bruce Phillips’s tightly controlled but gently modulated production of Caryl Churchill’s latest play A Number is that he never lets the focus of the play stray from the emotional relationships between the characters: 60-something Salter (played by Ray Henwood) and his three sons, (all played by Jason Whyte).

This spare, enigmatic play lasts a fraction under an hour, and in five scenes she explores Salter’s guilt and pain for having cloned his first born who was tragically killed. He also discovers, however, as do his sons, that doctors cannot be trusted. One of the best points about the play is that we are not presented with a Science Fiction world of the future; Salter’s world and that of his sons is very much the here and now.

The play also explores the way people develop regardless of their genetic make-up. One son can’t cope with the thought that he might see himself coming round a corner (You mean I’m not the original? I’m only the copy? he shouts in horror at one point) while another son cheerfully accepts the fact that there may well be a number of him but he is still happy to be himself. A third does not accept at all kindly that he has brothers.

Salter is a disturbed and disturbing character who Ray Henwood makes memorable with his hands twisting in nervousness and guilt, his eyes shifting uneasily to the middle distance away from the demanding stares of his sons, and yet there are touching moments when he desperately needs to make some sort of contact whether physical or emotional.

Jason Whyte plays the three sons and he is aided by three brief changes of costumes but, while the changes are probably necessary, he is too good an actor to rely on them. Each son is clearly and sharply differentiated and he joins Ray Henwood in a remarkable duet of concise, elliptical dialogue, of uncompleted sentences, and occasional shafts of humour.

It’s a challenging play, a demanding play but one well worth making the effort to see.


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Finely focused distillation

Review by John Smythe 28th May 2006

Caryl Churchill’s A Number works on a number of levels.

First it addresses the notion of cloning humans. The obvious ethical questions – playing God, messing with nature – are not confronted directly. Nor is the science of it detailed. Churchill just plays with the idea that it is possible and it has been done, albeit illegally.

Her primary focus is on why a person might choose to have it done and how the progeny – not to mention the original – might feel about it. It is from this perspective that we are invited to consider the wider ramifications. The need to feel one is the original is strongly established and acted upon in the first four of the five scenes, only to be intriguingly subverted in the fifth.

The role of the parent – in this case a solo father – in bolstering the ego of their offspring is well scrutinised. It’s a human trait to want to be – or to feel that one is – someone’s "one and only" and "simply the best" in their eyes.

I can say from experience that, if anything, this need is greater in identical twins. So what if you found there were maybe ten of you somewhere in the world? Or twenty, even? How would you feel? And if you were the father, the commissioning progenitor, how would you explain your actions at the genesis? What extenuating circumstances might make the untenable seem okay?

Then there’s the question of what you’d have done when things didn’t go exactly according to plan… To say more would be to subvert the theatrical impact of the revelations that give the hour-long play its structure.

Along the way nature versus nurture gets and airing and the fantasy of getting a second chance, or maybe even a third, is explored. But at what price? Where will it end? Having claimed such unnatural power over life, how easy may it be to do the same over death?

Then there’s the notion that life is what we make of it; that what distinguishes us as individuals is the way we choose to interpret and respond to our circumstances.

In distilling her topic and its themes, Churchill extracts her characters from their wider world, conveniently ignoring the other relationships Salter (the father) and Bernard and Bernard (two of the sons) might have. Michael (a third) does mention his own wife and children but, unaccountably, Salter shows no flicker of interest in discovering he has grandchildren.

Churchill also fails to mention exactly how the cells were acquired that made the cloning possible, let alone who the women were who gestated, bore, nurtured and raised the results. While I appreciate she didn’t want to flip the lid right off the whole can of worms, her omissions do leave us asking too many questions about what exactly has happened and how, instead of pondering the whys of it all and what we might have done…

As the set designer, director Bruce Phillips makes a virtue of this isolation by surrounding a sofa and armchair with 20 identical life-sized silhouettes (of Bernard). He also keeps the action tightly focused, admitting no hint of anything beyond each immediate interaction. Between scenes he allows us to contemplate each new set of revelations to solo piano interludes (Erik Sati), as Jason Whyte dons the clothing items – taken from the many scattered at the feet of his silhouettes – that distinguish Bernard, Bernard and Michael.

Whyte proves his great skill as an actor by simply being his three very different incarnations. The first Bernard is sensitive as he struggles to come to terms with the realisation he’s one of… a number. The second Bernard (which is not to say he wasn’t the first) is all high-tensile testosterone as he reclaims his rightful place in the world. And Michael is simply delighted by each new discovery this ever-surprising and wonderful world offers.

Ray Henwood, as Salter, doesn’t get to explore anything like that range, which I see as another shortcoming of the play. But the self-serving weaknesses and vulnerabilities he reveals (devoid of any of Henwood’s usual charisma), are finely tuned as Salter projects his wants and needs on his progeny and feeds off their responses. And they would have been more telling had we seen just a glimpse of the strength, power and arrogance that must dwell somewhere within him too. He has played God, after all.

As a team, Henwood and Whyte work wonderfully together. The costumes by Donna Jefferis, and lighting design by Jennifer Lal, add just the right feel and moods.

They say it’s a virtue to leave the audience wanting more but for me fewer "Yes, but…" concerns would have left me more free to focus on the more important issues. Even so, it’s an excellent production of a thought-provoking play.


John Smythe May 31st, 2006

Thanks, Michael, for another excellent comment. When I mention Caryl Churchill's omissions, I'm not after sci fi. I'm wanting to know about the other significant relationships that must be central to these young men - their mother-figures especially. It is, after all - as you clearly agree - a play about relationships, not least of a person with themself.

Michael Wray May 29th, 2006

With regard to the lack of explanation regarding the way in which cells were harvested and the clones "grown", I thought the omission deliberate and worthwhile. By doing this, I felt that the play becomes specifically about the people involved and their emotions. It avoids the risk of wandering into a sci-fi genre. For me that would have diluted the play's real theme. I was left admiring especially the performance from Jason Whyte. In particular, the emotions displayed as Bernard at the end of one scene with full flowing tears, then having to immediately turn that off and switch to the other Bernard a moment later with no evidence of the switch. In the fourth scene I liked the donning of one Bernard's item of clothing and also one from the other Bernard. Was one the token "trophy" of the other? Which one? Is he the Bernard he claims to be? With Jason's subdued portrayal, particularly towards the end of the scene, I felt it could go either way and I enjoyed the deliberate ambiguity. By the way, I would recommend that anyone who enjoys this play (and who wouldn't) might also like reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - similar theme and no straying into sci-fi.

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