Since I’m currently unemployed and spending most of my free time blogging between jobhunting and time-wasting I’d thought volunteer at the local theatre as an usher. The Nuffield theatre is one of the few small theatres in Hampshire, along with the Royal Winchester Theatre, The Old Refectory Theatre in Winchester, The Berry Theatre in Hedge End, The Point in Eastleigh, The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton, and The Plaza Theatre in Romsey, which offers community arts projects, amateur dramatics and performances from established playwrights. Although it seems there are several venues, theatre and performance arts in the South is not especially prolific, and along with other community groups, struggles to obtain funding, despite the strong enthusiasm from locals.
I hadn’t known anything about the play before I’d attended last night’s performance, except that I’d read one of Churchill play’s during college which I can’t seem to find the name of, but which had been about Oliver Cromwell’s campaign against parliament, and which I’d found very strange and almost incomprehensible. As far as I’m aware, Churchill is a notable and influential figure in the theatre and literary circles, and has been for the last thirty years.
From reading her wiki page, her work has been compared to that of Bertolt Brecht for it’s innovation with politics, style and the ‘alienation effect’, in which themes and performances were deliberately stretched and made unpleasant, and, as with her British contemporaries such as Harold Pinter, Dennis Potter and Edward Bond, this depicted controversial themes often containing scenes of violence or sex to challenge audiences sensibilities and morality.
Churchill’s plays have been discussed in relation to discourses about feminism, postmodernism, social issues and politics relating to the counterculture movements of the sixties, seventies and eighties.
As you would expect, A Number, is no less disturbing or incendiary than her earlier work, although I’d assumed it was ‘new’ play, it was actually first performed in 2002, and had recently played in London before touring the country. Again, this seemed unusual. Why this play? Why now?
As with alot of contemporary theatre, the themes and the style are startling and strange. A few months ago I’d seen the play Constellations by Nick Payne (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellations_(play)), which dealt with the fractured, schizoid break-up make-up of a couple, in which the sames scenes are repeated over and over again in a series of possible circumstances and realities, all revolving around the metaphor of string theory quantum physics – not about the actual science, but the different possibilities showing how romantic relationships work and fail. This theme, or style, is somewhat overused today in the cinema, and one wonders how much the author had been influenced from watching films such as Sliding Doors, Magnolia, Momemto and Pulp Fiction, in which time shifts in the narrative ellipsis distort the audience’s perception of reality. Possibly the most successful of these to deal with quantum theory have been the nightmarish Donnie Darko (2001) and Coherence (2013)
Similarly, A Number, manipulates time and reality in a way that sees disjointed and challenging. The narrative is lineal, simple, showing scenes from different moments of a single story between three characters. Two actors play a father and his two identical sons – same actor in different scenes. Interestingly, the existential themes and Kafkaesque anxieties about genetic engineering and identities reminded me of recent film Enemy (2013), in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a man who one day mysteriously discovers that he has a doppelganger living a parallel life to his own. Not an original premise and verging on the cliched if you’ve already seen the ‘who-I-am?!’ thrillers like Total Recall (1990), Unknown (2011) or Vanilla Sky (2001).
A Number contains similar anxieties and questions about fate, identity and meaning of life, if you were to suddenly discover that there is another version of yourself, identical, but also potentially hostile. What transpires is a series of scenes in which a father and his son (not the original) confront the possibility that their lives do not really belong to them, but to science and some other malevolent party. Following the death of his wife, whom may have killed herself, the father neglects his infant son before mysteriously deciding to abandon him and start from scratch with a new son, but using the genes of the one he abandoned.
The first scene is an argument between the surrogate ‘clone’ and the father at the moment the truth is made public, hence the title ‘a number’, what the father hadn’t realised was that doctors from the experiment had cloned multiple versions of his ‘lost’ son, and which creates a legal and ethical dilemma for all. The two argue about the father’s reasons for agreeing to such a diabolical experiment, and the cloned son wants answers to questions such as ‘Who am I? Am I really me, or just a copy of someone else? Do I own my identity if I’m not the only me?’. The two men argue, and struggle to find answers to these questions, as the father tries to convince the surrogate that it was he that he’d loved, not the original, that the clone was better and more perfect than the original.
In terms of identity and their relationship, the father tries to convince the son that their relationship is unique and this is what makes them who they are. The surrogate struggles to accept this or his father’s actions which he believes are evil.
When the lost son appears, he is equally furious with the father, and demands as to know why he’d abandoned him and then simply bought a copy of the same person. The original son is noticeably more aggressive, working class and angrier compared with the gentle, conscientious twin, and whose presence is a portent of death and destruction, in an almost Kane and Able parable.
In the final scene, the father is confronted again by another clone, whom he repeatedly interrogates to discover what makes him unique apart from his other two sons whom died as a result of this betrayal. The third son convinces him that he has no issue with being a clone, that he’s happy in his own life, and believes that each of them are unique, albeit slightly similar. Perhaps, it is here that Churchill makes an oversimplification on our feelings about individuality, personal freedom, and somewhat dismissive attitude about the existence of God and the ‘soul’ (which is never mentioned once).
Although it deals heavily with the emotional and human fears about genetic engineering and cloning, it seems less concerned about this than the conflict between fathers and sons, and even brothers, or specifically men generally. In this world, men are angry, violent and selfish, sometimes caring, but also deceitful. It is never explained why the father’s wife committed suicide, which he initially claims was a car accident, or why the father and the original son had such a difficult relationship which led the father’s decision. The father’s past is never explained, he simply admits that he did terrible, unforgivable things before he’d adopted the surrogate, and probably led to his mother’s death, but which he has tried to atone. This is simply left for the audience to speculate what this might have been, and the moral message of this tragedy.
This was perhaps my only issue with the play, the condemnation of the father figure and the sins inherited by the sons as punishment, although I understand the contradictions and hypocrisies of masculinity, which is evident in Magnolia, and plays by Dennis Potter, David Mamet, Harold Pinter, and even more obviously in the two plays by Arthur Miller, Death of Salesmen and All Our Sons; masculinity has a dark side. In the third act, the stranger and third surrogate even speaks comically about the nature of war when asked by the father to describe something personal to him, the son remarks ‘the problem I have with war, is that everyone always thinks they’re the good guys. No one ever stands up and says, ‘we’re the bad guys, let’s go kill the good guys”.
The last thing worth mentioning was the stage design, which was something truly original, and I’d never seen before. Instead of a regular stage with an audience seated facing the stage, the lower floors of the theatre have been rebuilt into a four-way plan, in which the actors perform inside a closed space surrounded by two-way mirrors on each wall, allowing the audience to stare into the room, like a strange peep-show exhibition, whilst the actors perform unable to see or hear the audience as the mirrors reflect the actors to infinity. This must be extremely strange and claustrophobic for the actors unable to know what the audience is doing, or even if there is an audience behind the glass.