Edinburgh International Science Festival 2017 / A Number

Brian Ferguson and Peter Forbes in ‘A Number’. Credit: Aly Wight

Imagine discovering that you are but one of a number of clones. The play A Number, directed by award-winning Scottish writer Zinnie Harris, is a powerful and insightful production exploring the issues surrounding human cloning. Peter Forbes plays Salter, a troubled father, while Brian Ferguson cleverly plays both Bernard and Bernard’s clones.

The production of Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play, reconstructed in partnership with the Edinburgh International Science Festival, begins with a son’s discovery that he is one of a number of clones. Through a heated confrontation between Salter and his son, the audience gradually comes to understand that Salter deemed his ‘original’ son a failure and, seeking a cutting-edge, scientific solution, met with a professor and requested a clone of his son. The professor met his demands but, unbeknownst to Salter, simultaneously produced nineteen other genetically identical clones. A Number portrays Salter’s realisation of the professor’s betrayal, Bernard’s discovery of his father’s misguided scheme, and the clones’ struggle to come to terms with the fact that that they are not, as they once believed, unique. The audience meets three of the clones: the ‘original’ Bernard, who was deemed a failure by his father and sent into care; the ‘do-over’ Bernard, who was showered with love and affection by his father; and Michael, one of the nineteen other clones. Throughout the play, Ferguson effortlessly switches from character to character between scenes, reminding the audience of the age-old nature versus nurture debate: despite being genetically identical, Bernard’s clones each have very distinct personalities and traits depending on their own individual upbringing.

A Number also tackles several newer issues, including the emotional impact of being a clone. Indeed, the different personality types of each clone meant that they each react differently to the revelation. The ‘original’ Bernard responded with anger and violence, the second Bernard was shocked yet thoughtful, and the other clone, Michael, responded with bemusement and fascination. In each response, however, Ferguson portrays each character to be assessing their sense of identity and the identity of their fellow clones. In the opening scene, Bernard’s reflections sum up the complicated thought process: “I do think they’re them as much as I’m me… but if that’s me over there, who am I?”

Salter, on the other hand, is outraged with the professor, claiming: “They’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity… They stole your genetic material.” Churchill uses Salter’s character to introduce the idea that DNA is a possession that can be stolen. Several times, Forbes’ character obsesses over the subject of lawyers and compensation. An area of science and technology that is developing at such a pace demands that the relevant laws develop at the same rate. This begs the question: Is genetic identity something that can be owned and therefore can be stolen? And who does someone’s genetic identity belong to? The parent, the child, or the scientist? These questions are not answered definitively in the play, but A Number brings to light many of these ethical debates.

With blue flashes of light to signify different clones, and understated, unchanging sets that highlight the similarities between Bernard and his clones, the minimalist nature of the production means that the dialogue takes centre stage. The actors have undeniably risen to the challenge and the most memorable and powerful features of A Number are the relationship illustrated between father, son and clone, as well as the clear emotional struggle that each character experiences.

In the home city of Dolly the Sheep, the controversies surrounding human cloning have been long-debated. Though purely hypothetical, since human cloning remains illegal, A Number  encourages the audience to reassess their own stance on the topic by observing debates between the characters. In one such debate between Bernard’s clone and his father, the clone thoughtfully considers the implications of his existence: “After all, we’re 99.8% genetically identical to any other human, we’re 98% identical to a chimp and we’re 30% identical to a lettuce. I like that about the lettuce, it makes me feel like I belong.”


This review was written by Bonnie Nicholson and edited by Teodora Aldea.

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