Cloning: it’s an identity crisis

By Theresa Smith Time of article published Oct 11, 2011

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A NUMBER

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Munby

CAST: Timothy West and Samuel West

VENUE: The Fugard Theatre

UNTIL: October 29

RATING: ***

The looped sound of a crying child greets you upon entering the Sigrid Rausing room at The Fugard Theatre, creating a creepy atmosphere, helped along by eerily-lit stalactite test tubes.

The very simple stage contains only a chair and a side table and the staging has been done in such a way that you feel almost voyeu-ristic. The seating rakes up two sides of the room, and you are constantly watching the charac-ters’ profiles, peeking into their lives, as the younger ones confront the older man.

Bernard (Samuel West) challenges his father, Salter (Timothy West), about apparently having been cloned, and finds out that it is true and he doesn’t really know his father after all.

When Bernard finds out he was cloned he starts to question his identity, uncovering a lifetime of family secrets. Does the existence of a clone damage his uniqueness, he asks his father.

While the ethics of cloning was the provocative topic when this play was first staged in 2002, it seems to have faded into the background, foregrounding the issue of how identity is created.

Turns out Salter had his son cloned so that he could start over again with a new son and get it right, but as Bernard puts it – he can’t give his dad credit for one thing if he can’t blame him for the other.

West sr creates a dignified character who is more indignant that the cloning doctor made a number of copies than that the secret’s out. While he stands by his actions, Salter becomes progres-sively plagued by doubt, coming across as increasingly vulnerable.

West jr gives us three different sons: the first, Bernard, is scared by the idea of losing himself in the morass of too many Mes; there’s an older Bernard who is much more confrontational, angry and physical; and a Michael who seems to be the most well-adjusted with his own family.

West uses more than just clothes to create three characters with different attitudes, accents and personalities.

For all the atmospheric eeriness created with the lights, set and sound design, it’s surprisingly non-weird because it’s a story about fathers and sons. For all the clever lines about individuality and responsibility, the line that stands out is from the first Bernard: “When you’re small your father isn’t old or young, he’s just a dark presence.”

The ploy of using a real-life father and son team brings the intimacy of that relationship into sharp relief. Because they know each other so well, the jagged dialogue is believable; they don’t have to mimic each other’s speech patters, they already have that. Sentences don’t end, they talk over each other and use short-hand, the way people who know each other well do.

This isn’t a tale about playing God, but a gentle take on nature versus nurture, coming down firmly on nurture’s side. It’s short, sharp and to the point, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with the message; the playwright prefers to show rather than tell.

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