A Number – Old Vic

Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu in A Number

You first realise that this staging of A Number is beginning as rich string chords fade in across the auditorium. As the light’s come down, the music becomes recognisable as the work of Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. His piece ‘Fratres’ will recur throughout the production, scoring the interstices between the five scenes, and I found it to be a hugely powerful choice which was not only thematically apt, but revelatory even in Lyndsey Turner’s heart-breaking take on Caryl Churchill’s short play.

First performed in 2002, A Number tells a deceptively simple tale of a father (Salter) and his son (Bernard), who has seen ‘a number’ of clones of himself wandering around in the world. At first, Salter denies all knowledge, but the facades he has built soon crumble away and we learn that this Bernard is also a clone – having duplicated the first Bernard after putting him into care. Instead of having another child, Salter insists though that he wanted ‘the same’; as becomes clear, he wanted to have another go at getting fatherhood right. Though debuting amid moral panics over cloning, The essential durability of Churchill’s is epitomised by A Number – whose most searching questions concern the tyrannies of parenthood, abuse, and the socialised nature of identity. Yet in the Old Vic’s new version, Arvo Pärt’s music reveals an additional layer of spirituality – which foreshadows the interests of her recent works, such as Imp and What If If Only.

Originally composed in 1977, ‘Fratres’ has become a phenomenon of 20th century classical music. It is something of a staple in film soundtracks (notably There Will Be Blood) and I believe it is commonly used as placeholder temporary music in the making of other film and television (meaning that many scores end up sounding a bit like it). Its sublime power is undiminished though, and ‘Fratres’ exudes a potent religiosity that moves even secular listeners (including this one).

In many ways, it is the perfect piece to juxtapose with A Number. It is structured in many variations, all different, yet stemming from the same underlying patterns – as the drama’s clones differ while sharing DNA. ‘Fratres’ means ‘brothers’ in Latin, the word balancing familial and holy fellowship, while seeming to comment on the brotherly relationship of each of the piece’s sections. Its energy matches Churchill’s writing too – mercurially shifting from serene stillness and bell-like chords to dazzling, choppy motion. Churchill’s dialogue is similarly coiled like a spring – taut, often quiet and calm, yet with an angular, staccato edge.

It even seems ironically apt that ‘Fratres’ exists not in a single version – but many; the original 1977 version was written ‘without fixed instrumentation’. Thus, there is no definitive or original ‘Fratres’ – fitting given Bernard 2’s questions over the contrasting order and primacy of Salter’s clone sons. Since its composition, it has been performed (perhaps most commonly) by violin and cello soloists with a piano, by orchestras, ensembles of cellists, bands of percussionists, and even a quartet of saxophones. Yet each one shares the same framework – the same musical DNA.

Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James in A Number

Yet this production’s use of Pärt is more than a canny thematic concordance, unearthing, for me, a rich spiritual yearning at the heart of A Number. Past productions, like the Polly Findlay’s terrific 2020 version (with Colin Morgan and Roger Allam at the Bridge Theatre), have left this side of the play relatively unexplored – more than justifying Turner’s decision to remount the play so soon after its last major outing.

This spirituality is found in the structure of Pärt’s composition. In the early 1970s, Pärt converted from Lutheranism to Orthodox Christianity, and after several years, in 1976, began composing again – adopting a new method with a decidedly religious motivation. ‘Fratres’ was an early work in Pärt’s now-defining ‘tintinnabuli’ style. From ‘tintinnabulum’ (Latin for ‘bell’), this mathematical – even algorithmic – form of composition combines two main voices: the notes of the chord of the key signature, and line generally moving in step. These form a ringing harmony, plaintively beautiful – sacred yet modern.

In 1997, Björk commented that Pärt ‘has got the whole battle of this century inside him’. He considers music to have not only spiritual significance, but purpose. Describing the combination of melody with tintinnabuli chords – as in ‘Fratres’, often played on violin or cello and piano respectively – Pärt says that ‘the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line [of tintinnabuli chords] is forgiving the sins’. The music ministers to human errors, an agent of forgiveness. Tom Service even argues that the dissonances that Pärt’s systematic approach creates generate simultaneous ‘sorrow’ and ‘consolation’. His music is a beautiful, though painful, form of purification.

Though some critics have questioned the Old Vic’s decision to stage A Number, less than two (pandemic-stricken) years since the Bridge’s major revival, this is arguably the first production to put forward, as the play’s main theme, forgiveness. Specifically, A Number depicts a failure to seek forgiveness – the play’s father-figure, Salter, clinging onto a tragic desperation to do and be right entirely through his own actions. This is encapsulated in the decision to use the mellower cello arrangement of ‘Fratres’, with its lower, paternal melody line – evoking the sins of the father.

What the presence of ‘Fratres’ seems to articulate, almost imperceptibly, is the alternative path Salter could have taken. The irony at the heart of the play is that the biggest mistake he should correct if he could was his decision to clone his son – a choice driven by an urge to fix past errors. This production seems to argue that Salter should have sought affirmation and forgiveness – perhaps even of a spiritual kind – rather than turn to science. There is no gesture towardness naturalness or criticism of man playing God though; the reason why turning to such a drastic scientific option is flawed is because it is fundamentally incapable of giving Salter the absolution he craves. A second child does not give him a blank slate, but a rickety house of cards – which his lies have sustained for years – which now comes tumbling down.

In Pärt’s music, mathematics and physics are transformative – allowing closeness to the divine. His musical system represents (and for some even does) the forgiveness of sins. For Salter though, science is a means to a very different end. Though the process successfully produces a clone for him to parent, he fails to acknowledge the insurmountable scientific fact of time having passed – and his past actions having had effects. Forgiveness cannot be a unilateral act of self-exoneration, nor can it be attained through further lies and fantasy. A Number is thus a powerfully moving portrait of a father who yearns for forgiveness he cannot bring himself to ask for.

Lennie James in A Number

What elevates this already philosophically and psychologically rich staging even more is the urgent force of its actors, who transform the cryptic turns of the plot into aching human relevations – the pain palpable. Paapa Essiedu is extraordinary, conveying three different but genetically identical characters with immaculate precision. In the opening scene, Salter’s clone son Bernard is rendered with humane perplexity – struggling to piece together the literal facts of his own life and the paternal betrayal simultaneously. Bernard 1, meanwhile, is tenser – coiled with an agitation and simmering menace that culminate in the revelation of his murder of Bernard 2, and then his suicide. In the final scene, Essiedu plays Michael Black – one of the twenty or so unauthorised clones of Bernard 1 – and finds another, strikingly different, register. Hugely (somewhat comically) unbothered by being a clone, the character’s presence almost raises questions as to why he is in the play at all – living a life of quiet, ordinary happiness, in contrast to the searching desperation of Salter, his parent only in biology. Yet this contrast epitomises the play’s dramatization of the alternative path; Michael does not feel the crushing need to be defined by his origins.

Lennie James, meanwhile, matches Essiedu – anchoring the play with an unshowy, subtle turn as Salter. His good-natured demeanour and stage action lull us into a security that is offset by the truth of his actions. Salter is often in motion – a proactive father – quietly undertaking housework tasks, and gently wringing tea towels with discomfort. When he talks about the difficulties of parenting, saying ‘I did cook meals now and then’, it seems less apologetic than self-effacing; he does seem – in some ways – an attentive, well-meaning dad, though with a secret eating him up inside. James opts to play him as a man who barely knows that he is lying, the effect brilliantly realised. Lies seem so customary to Salter that he cannot help it. ‘I’m not attempting to deny’, he says to Bernard 1, mere seconds after an attempted denial. James’ warmth makes Salter seem wretched rather than evil, not dissimilar to Allam’s take in 2020. It is probably the better choice, mining the role’s understated pathos rather than presenting him as a sinister, calculating manipulator. Salter does not consider himself a villain but becomes something like one through his efforts not to be.

When – almost on reflex – Salter suggests that Bernard could sue the cloning company, for infringement on his personhood, it sounds like the result of a learned cultural instinct, from the capitalist waters we swim in, rather than the result of a scheming personal greed. Systems of justice and restitution have been usurped by a purely financial logic. This implicit satire of compensation culture is perhaps one of the play’s more specific links to the early noughties – much more so than the moral panics over cloning and identity.

Though identity and the age-old nature versus nurture debate rumble below A Number’s surface, Turner presents the play mainly as an account of paternal failure and inherited consequences. Here, Churchill’s drama seems fairly certain that genetics are far lower down the deterministic pecking order than the effects of parenting and socialisation – which the final scene, quietly, devastatingly demonstrates. The early taut, domestic tension dissipates with a change to Es Devlin’s set, which replaces the sleek, minimalist, modular home with an art gallery – each canvas strikingly empty. A security guard wanders in the background, the play’s intense two-character dramaturgy substituted for something looser, more leisurely and laid-back.

There is none of the blame-filled struggle between father and son. The clone Michael provides a vision of an alternative path – the same DNA, raised differently. Yet the key difference was not that he was raised in a different style per se, but that he was not brought up by Salter. The purpose of the meeting seems to be for Salter to extract information – about Michael’s emotions and inner life. Michael, though, cannot provide all of the answers Salter is looking for, struggling to understand why the existence of other clones – and the fact he is one – would be a form of ‘losing [his] life’. ‘I’ve still got my life’, he calmly responds. Salter probes, hoping to find Michael’s essence – ‘tell me something about yourself that’s really specific to you, something really important’ – but Michael insists again and again on defining himself in relation to others. His wife, family and baby all constitute a large part of his identity; meanwhile, as Michael blithely notes, we have ‘thirty percent the same [DNA] as a lettuce’. Advocates for genetically determined difference not only overlook the vast similarities – evoked here as ‘the unifuckingversal [joy of] turning over in bed’ – but also that what particularises us as individuals is very often the unique combination of relationships we have formed with others. The reason Michael is so unaffected by the revelation of his birth is that he looks to meaningful relationships for his identity, rather than inside himself or towards a point of origin.

Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu in A Number

Salter’s fundamental mistake – his flaw, even – is that for him everything is coloured by deterministic logic, coloured quite literally in Es Devlin’s beautifully pristine set. The home setting for scenes one to four evokes the pungent vitality yet unreality of Salter’s world. Almost every single prop and feature on stage is painted the same shade of deep red. It has the sheen of a modern science lab and the intense lighting of a nuclear power station in meltdown. The effect is uncanny and unsettling; something in this home is not quite right. The hue unavoidably evokes blood. For Salter, that is where the bond between father and son is located – a biological fact, rather than a shared, social relationship. What makes Salter’s flaw so toxifying is his inability to reckon with his sons’ differences from him; though connected through blood, one’s children will always have their own lives distinct from yours – a painful fact every parent has to accept. Yet for Salter, divergence equates to a form of personal failure. Devlin’s masterfully heightened realism is matched in the dialogue’s delivery too. Churchill’s staccato rhythms are deliberately challenging, potentially open to an ultra-realist, digressive interpretation, though here the actors lend them a perfectly off-kilter, stylised edge.

As you watch Turner’s production, you peer closer – trying to see how things fit together, as Bernard 2 does at the baffling course of events in the first scene. At some point (perhaps early on, or only at the curtain call) you figure out that the Pärt-underscored inter-scenes feature not Essiedu but an understudy (Phillip Olagoke) to facilitate what seem like dazzlingly quick, magical costume changes. It is a neat touch to mirror the play’s themes in this stage magic – more Bernards wandering about than you expect.

While I certainly agree with Dan Rebellato’s claim that Caryl Churchill ‘never repeats herself’, A Number’s concerns seem so defining and important that it is not surprising to see them appearing again new forms. Churchill’s latest short play, the brilliant What If If Only – which James Macdonald staged at the Royal Court in late 2021 – spirals back to these themes, this time with a partner who the protagonist seems to will into manifestation. That’s what Bernard 2 is here – a ‘what if if only’ made flesh. Yet this production shows that it would not be fair to assert A Number is the harder sci-fi play compared to What If If Only’s ghostly spirituality. A searching, almost-but-not-quite religious quality flickers in A Number too, animated here in the transfixing and moving use of ‘Fratres’ – evoking Salter’s sins, and the failed attempts at forgiveness which he made without making an apology.

The play ends with Salter asking ‘[do] you like your life’, to which Michael replies ‘I do yes, sorry.’ Of course, ironically, Michael is the one with nothing to apologise for.

A Number

Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by Lyndsey Turner, Set Design by Es Devlin, Costume Design by Natalie Pryce, Lighting Design by Tim Lutkin, Sound Design by Donato Wharton, Starring Paapa Essiedu, Lennie James, David Carr, Phillip Olagoke
Reviewed 14th February 2022

What If If Only – Royal Court Downstairs

John Heffernan, Jasmine Nyenya and Linda Bassett in What If If Only

I was reading about this man who spent ten years trying to paint an apple so it looked just like an apple. That was eighteen to twenty eight.

Then he spent seven years trying to paint an apple so it looked nothing like an apple.

Then he died.

This is the sort of thing that interests you. That used to interest you.

In What If If Only, Caryl Churchill tries to write a ghost story. Then she writes something nothing like a ghost story. But here she does it all at the same time.

In her latest short play for the Royal Court, Churchill upends the usual ghost story structure. Typically, a ghost story will follow someone once living continuing to exist in some form beyond death. Here we are presented with the ghost (or ghosts) of dead futures, cursed never to have been alive and with no possibility of becoming alive. Though brief, at only twenty minutes (and a sparse, pause-filled twenty minutes at that), the production teems with raw emotion, humane philosophical enquiry, and political reflection. That it feels so rich is nothing short of a marvel.

Directing a Caryl Churchill play comes with many challenges, but What If If Only sees James Macdonald approach yet another Churchill offering with superb focus. The difficulty is the need to interpret the script’s elusive ideas, while leaving the effect thematically indeterminate. The production needs to be highly specific and careful, without losing its emotional power. This capacity for balancing directorial interpretation and authorial intention, while leaving space for audiences to make up their own minds seems exactly why writers such as Churchill, Lucy Kirkwood and Annie Baker have given Macdonald their wonderfully detailed and exacting scripts in recent years.

The script here is delightful and hard to pin down. Yet despite its strangeness (and sometimes our uncertainty over what we are actually watching), it begins with a command of semi-naturalist characterisation which is utterly masterful. Churchill subtly sketches her bereaved subject, Someone – played as a man here by a breath-taking John Heffernan. He talks to a partner who is not there, his long silences filled with hurt and blame. (We soon discover that his partner died by suicide.) Though overuse has often made such moments feel clichéd, Churchill’s shifts in tense between ‘are’ and ‘were’ when Someone talks about his dead partner express a fresh emotional truth. The trope is examined. Churchill grapples with the simultaneous deadness and continuity of the recently deceased; Someone describes the artist, saying ‘I think he was a difficult person like you’re a difficult person. Were. Are.’

Bitter that his partner sends no ghostly sign, he remarks ‘Are you not trying? If you’d wanted to talk to me you could have stayed alive.’ Churchill always seems to find the right words, even when feeding us exposition. ‘Would he kill himself? You know what it takes to kill yourself, would he do that?’, Someone asks. These barbed recriminations generate empathy, but I also felt that he is quite a difficult person too.

After the slow opening monologue, John Heffernan is joined on stage by Linda Bassett, who gives a very different yet complementary performance as a variety of apparitions: a Future, Futures, and the Present. Heffernan acts with slowly mounting intensity – which, depending on the night you see it, can burst into volcanic crying or something quieter and whimpering. (Both are hugely moving.) Bassett meanwhile displays a remarkable range, conveying the impish delight of utopia, the maelstrom of the chaotically competing possible futures, and the cool detachment of the present.

Miriam Buether’s set is a minimalist triumph, slotting well in front of the brickwork and plywood frame of Is God Is. The stage has an almost painterly composition. John Heffernan’s Someone is hemmed into one corner, sat across a table from an empty chair. The left half of the stage is entirely empty, the space enclosed by white walls that give the scene the look of a three-dimensional canvas. The emptiness is striking and simple; the room is too big for only one person.

The effect of Heffernan’s almost motionless performance (he fiddles at little with some fruit) is to make the stage look like a very empty painting. Indeed, ‘still life’ would be an apt subtitle for the play. After all, what is a ghost but life still going on when corporeal existence has stopped. The curious opening monologue establishes What If If Only as a play concerned with art and its limitations – a space for imagining possible futures and mirroring reality. The reason the artist shifts from trying to render apple in exact detail to pure abstraction is left unspecified, but it arguably reflects Churchill’s own shift as a dramatist. Most of her 21st century work would fit the description ‘fantastical’; generally, she has eschewed realism for something stranger. She does not simply paint an apple.

Perhaps this is an objection to realism as a tool for political analysis and debate – her own literary canon rife with experiments in political drama that does not look at all like conventional British examples. Would the artist paint the same apple or replace it with a ‘perfectly ripe apple’ each morning, Someone wonders. The folly of the artist trying to perfectly represent an apple which will have rotted away by the time the work is completed could be read as a comment on the short use by date much direct political writing will have. The gesture behind many of Churchill’s more recent plays (Escaped Alone, Kill and Imp spring to mind particularly) seems to be to evoke contemporary social and political forces, unmoored from our own world – though sprinkled with details from it. (In Escaped Alone’s apocalyptic world ‘eighty per cent of food was diverted to tv programmes’ such that ‘commuters watch breakfast on iPlayer’). Arguably the still life’s counterpart in drama is the state-of-the-nation genre, hinging on the representation of (or sometimes the attempt to reveal) how things are. Yet for Churchill, not only are some things in a constant state of flux, but others are lost to the past forever. Drama is too slow a medium to address the politics of the moment.

This makes it fascinating that What If If Only can be watched in the same evening as Lucy Kirkwood’s bravura Maryland, a rapid-response play written in only two days and staged script-in-hand just over a week later. It mounts a coruscating examination of violence against women and the police, particularly responding to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. Kirkwood’s play shows the immense value of directly political contemporary writing in playing out versions of all-too-common scenes from real life. Kirkwood’s play does something a bit different; it is (in Kirkwood’s words) a ‘howl’.

There are occasional, directly political moments in What If If Only. The utopia represented by Future is coded as specifically left-wing. Future notes that ‘I’ve been glimpsed I’ve been died for in China and Russia and South America and here’, aligning its politics with Socialism and Communism – though served with ‘equality and cake and no bad bits at all’ to sweeten the deal for potential detractors. Yet here, though begging to be made to happen, there is a resigned quality to Bassett’s performance. This is a future which thinks it will not happen, symbolic of the decline of left-wing idealism in the second half of the 20th century, to the present day.

Arguably one of the main themes of the play is political inertia, restated in Present’s monologue. She says that ‘the Present always has wars and any Future that promised no more is dead dead dead’. The present increasingly resembles Mrs Jarrett’s visions of the end of the world in Escaped Alone, and Far Away’s conflict-ridden world of ecological breakdown seems less and less far away than it did in 2000. Though the world may be chaotic and violent, at the same time the prevailing political and economic ideas remain stuck, Churchill suggests.

Yet the extent to which we accept the claims of the Present seems rather up to us. Indeed, our present malaise seems reflected in the grief-heightened cynicism of Someone. We have lost faith, not only in the soul persisting after death, but possible futures themselves. The Present is here to stay; ‘it will be the Present as it always is’. It is the end of history, not in terms of liberal democratic stability, but due to our tacit acceptance of our inability to reshape the world into something better. We no longer believe in a future or the possibility that we could shape it.

The play does push against this idea too though. It ends with a Child Future (winningly played with energy by Jasmine Nyenya and Samir Simon-Keegan) insisting ‘I’m going to happen’. The image is striking, filled with naivety and pure earnestness. Though the play is extremely sober in its representation of what has been irretrievably lost, it does not mean there is no future.

What If If Only

Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by James Macdonald, Design by Miriam Buether, Starring John Heffernan, Linda Bassett, Jasmine Nyenya and Samir Simon-Keegan
Reviewed 11th October 2021