Father, son do their number

2011-10-14 08:46

We assume that we are all unique, but what happens when we discover we are not? STEVE KRETZMANN tries to get the  answer from Timothy and Samuel West, a father-and-son acting team

‘We’re all individuals!” is a famous line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian which, old and oft-repeated as it is, still produces a wry smile at its truism.

But what happens when this idea of individuality is challenged? What would we do if we discovered that there was not just one, but 20 or more of us?

This is the question playwright Caryl Churchill examines in her play A Number, which is running at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. Written in 2002 when cloning was a hot topic, the play has two actors and four characters.

Bernard (B2) discovers the existence of a clone (B1). The main dramatic question is: who is the original person? The question becomes even more dramatic after a third clone, Michael Black, appears. In fact, B2 hears that there may be 20 or more clones.

What is special about this play at The Fugard Studio’s stage is that the two actors are father and son – Timothy and Samuel West – and had no fewer than seven five-star reviews of their recent performance on London’s West End. City Press was able to pull them out of rehearsals to chat.

Timothy, who turns 77 later this month, looks every bit the elderly Englishman, dressed in hues of brown and tan, while his son, Samuel (45), in jeans and a grey hoodie, apologises for not having shoes on.

It becomes apparent very soon that there is no issue surrounding 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 accept the part of the younger Maurice in the film.

Timothy’s father, Lockwood West, was an actor and Timothy’s wife and Samuel’s mother, Prunella Scales, is also an actor – most famously Mrs Fawlty to John Cleese’s Basil.

“It’s the family business,” says Sam. Conversation quickly turns to the philosophical questions raised by A Number. “A Number is much more about the human interest, which is what Caryl is all about,” says Tim.

Sam mentions that when they did their first run at The Crucible in Sheffield in 2007, Dolly the sheep 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 “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”.

Caryl throws a curve ball in that while B1 and B2 react 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, 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 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,” 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 that raises many questions about identity and upbringing.

“We have to be well adjusted off stage in order to beat the shit out of each other on stage,” says Sam.

A Number runs at The Fugard Theatre Studio until October 29. Book at Computicket

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