‘We are all individuals,’ is the famous line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian that, old and oft-repeated as it is, still produces a snigger or wry smile at its truism.
For while we are each one of us unique, we are also more alike than we may wish to admit. We prize our individuality, yet seek to fit within the bounds of what might be considered normal, even the eccentric has been drawn into realm of acceptable exceptions to the rule.
Yet what happens when this idea of our individuality is challenged? What would we do if we discovered there was not one, but 20 or more of us?
This is the question playwright Caryl Churchill examins in her play A Number, which opened at The Fugard Theatre on October 4. Written in 2002 when cloning was a hot topic of debate – Dolly the sheep was successfully cloned in 2005 – it is written for two actors, and has four characters.
Bernard (B2) lives with his father, Salter, but then discovers the existence of a clone (B1). The question of who is the original is the main dramatic question, and questions escalate when a third clone, Michael Black, appears. In fact, B2 hears there may be 20 or more clones.
What is special about the run at The Fugard’s Studio stage is that the two actors are father and son team Timothy and Samuel West, who had no fewer than seven five-star reviews during their recent run in London’s West End.
WCN was able to pull them out of rehearsals before the opening to chat about the play.
Timothy, who turns 77 later this month, looks every bit the elderly Englishman dressed in hues in brown and tan, while his son Samuel, 45, in jeans and a grey hoodie, apologises for not having shoes on.
It is very soon apparent that there is no issue of Sam – as Timothy calls him – living in his father’s shadow.
In fact Tim – as Sam calls him – tells how when director Richard Eyre offered him the part of elderly Maurice in the film Iris, Richard’s condition was that Sam accepted the part of the younger Maurice in the film.
Timothy’s own father, Lockwood West, was an actor and his wife and Samuel’s mother Prunella Scales is also an actor. “It’s the family business,” says Sam.
Conversation quickly turns to the philosophical questions raised by A Number with Sam noting that the ethics of cloning seem to hold little interest for “Caryl” (Churchill).
“A Number is much more about the human interest, which is what Caryl is all about,” says Tim, as Sam adds that the play provides a situation – cloning has happened, “and these are the results”.
Sam mentions that when they did their first run at The Crucible in Sheffield in 2007, Dolly had been cloned two years prior and cloning was a “hot topic”.
“But we’ve moved away from that, the issue now is more about genetic predetermination. There’s talk of insurance companies doing genetic profiling and refusing to provide life or health insurance cover because your genetic make-up shows you’re prone to cancer, for instance. These are the sort of things that the play fights against, it’s a celebration of individualism.”
Tim notes that “conflict arises when people think they don’t own their individuality” and, possibly drawing on the wisdom of age, reflects that, ironically, “the happier people don’t worry about the fact that they’re not the only one, that they don’t stand out from the crowd.”
Talk of individuality leads to speculation on the society we live in.
“It’s an extraordinary function of global capitalism that we don’t have much of a freedom of choice yet we live in a culture where we’re being sold individuality all the time, as tiny little choices from mass produced items, like you can have extra cheese on your McDonalds,” says Sam, or people defining their personality by the things they own.
Caryl throws a curve ball in that while B1 and B2 react very badly to the discovery that they’re not the only ones – as might be expected – the third clone, Michael Black, who is married with children and works as a maths teacher, is unperturbed by the discovery.
Tim and Sam believe the message here is that the greater the number of loving relationships in a person’s life, the happier they are bound to be.
“It is clear that Michael has had a balanced upbringing, he talks simply and beautifully about love and is at the centre of a large number of loving bonds. B1 on the other hand, does not even have a dog to love him, there’s nobody in his life, no bonds. Caryl believes in the strength of these bonds very much,” says Sam.
It’s also clear that Sam must have had a balanced upbringing to be able to act with his father in a play which raises so many questions of identity and upbringing.
“You have to well-adjusted off stage in order to beat the shit out of each other on stage,” says Sam. — Steve Kretzmann
A Number plays at The Fugard Theatre Studio until October 29