Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Number

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There are rooms within rooms through the doorway of designer Fred Meller's cube-like construction for Zinnie Harris' production of Caryl Churchill's 2002 play. It may be smoke and mirrors that gives the illusion of infinity, but it's a telling pointer to what follows in a play born out of the scientific breakthrough in cloning by way of Dolly the Sheep.

Churchill's play opens just after a middle-aged man called Salter has revealed to his son Bernard that he is one of a number of clones. These were created by scientists seemingly without Salter's knowledge after he attempted to replace the apparent loss of his actual son. Both Bernards react in different ways, as one might expect of one child who was loved and another who was effectively dumped in a way one might do with an unruly pet. How the other nineteen versions of Bernard are getting on remains to be seen.

Revived by the Lyceum as part of Edinburgh International Science Festival, Churchill's play is an hour-long study in ethics that raises issues of nature versus nurture, and of the dysfunction and damage that can be caused by neglect or bad parenting. In Harris' hands, it becomes an intense psycho-drama, which focuses on the play's inherent plea for humanity in a tug of war between genetics and parental influence.

With two actors onstage throughout, it also wrings a gamut of emotions from the play's two leads as each meeting veers between confession and confrontation. Peter Forbes presents Salter as a confused and contrary figure, one minute wanting to make amends, the next wishing only to make some hard cash from his folly. It is Brian Ferguson, however, who is really put through the mill as both Bernards, as well as a third, more well-adjusted clone, Michael Black. In an impeccably nuanced performance, Ferguson switches moods and attitudes in an instant. As he does so, he peels back layer on layer of an an already multi-faceted dissection of human behaviour that reveals how society can shape it for better or worse.

The Herald, April 10th 2017

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