Genetically, you are 30% the same as a lettuce. You are 98% identical to a chimpanzee. 99.9% of your genes are the same as the person next to you. Biologically, you are who you are because of just 0.1% of your genes. So what if that was taken away from you? What if you discovered that there were a number of other people in the world who were not 99.9% the same as you, but 100%?
This is the premise for Caryl Churchill’s A Number, a dystopic drama where cloning people is a reality. During the play, the audience are faced with all the responses cloning provokes – fear of the unknown, anger at scientists playing God, excitement about discovering something new.
For Bernard (Brian Ferguson) and his father Salter (Peter Forbes), these emotions are not hypotheticals brought about by reading the news or watching a play, but are forced upon them by circumstance. Throughout A Number their conflicts cover a range of questions relating not just to cloning, but also to identity and why we become the people we do, and how far we are justified in manipulating the world to give ourselves a second chance.
Through five simple scenes each of these questions is explored and considered in impressive depth. The play hinges on the debate between nature and nurture; how much of our identity is a result of genetics and how much is a result of upbringing. If a clone of you was brought up in totally different circumstances, would you both call your dog Rover? Less than a mile from where Dolly the Sheep is on display, Edinburgh is a pertinent setting for this debate.
Beyond this scientific discussion, A Number has particular ethical resonances at this point in time. With the clones initially spoken of as ‘things’ and their numbers seen as threatening and uncertain, there are parallels with some attitudes towards asylum seekers. While the clones are dehumanised by Salter (sometimes, it seems, out of a sense of guilt), they are defended by Bernard, who insists that clones are people too.
As Bernard, Ferguson ranges from timid confusion to chair-tossing rage with ease, his accent thickening and softening as his emotions rise and fall. Salter’s true character is laid bare early on, as he strives to turn what is an emotionally challenging situation to financial gain. Forbes plays him with all the necessary bluster and sleaze to begin with, gradually becoming more hunched and shuffling as the events of the play wear his character down.
This pressure is partly built through the unchanging and claustrophobic set. With its bare white walls and stark lighting, the box-like room the characters are trapped in evokes a doctor’s waiting room or impersonal lodging house. Through the window at the back of the set, other rooms can be glimpsed, sometimes feeling like an endless hospital corridor, sometimes suggestive of countless other lives (cloned or otherwise) quietly going about their business.
In A Number, the question of whether we should clone people is only lightly touched on. Much more central is our identities and how we come by them, and what effect cloning would have on making us, us. This is not a play about what it means to be a clone, but what it means to be human.