“A Number” at the Young Vic

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

The Young Vic is just a stroll east from the Old Vic, along the street called The Cut. (The two theatres have no connection with each other, by the way.) We like the Young Vic very well, for its adventurous programming and its pleasant and affordable cafe. So it was that on Wednesday following our arrival, having booked tickets for The Beaux’ Stratagem at The National Theatre that evening, we sauntered down The Cut to see what matinees were on offer at the Young Vic.

Kafka’s The Trial, two hours without an interval – a bit grim-sounding, not to mention jet lag. Or A Number, by Caryl Churchill, an hour without an interval. Both sold out. We are advised to come back at 2:30 for possible returns for A Number. There were none, but they squeeze us in anyway, selling us each a ticket and then immediately confiscating it, to replace it with a card with a number, our new identity. (It turned out that this clever gimmick has really nothing to  do with the play.)

The audience is sent off to four different entrances. We take our seats facing ourselves reflected in a mirror wall. We suspect, correctly, that we are one of four audiences on the four sides of a square stage. With a crashing chord, the mirror becomes transparent, and we see two men in a no-place environment. The younger is (maybe) the older man’s son. He has discovered that he is a clone, and that there are a number of such clones. Is he the real one or not?

The dialogue is all overlaps and interruptions, suggesting the patterns of real speech, but delivered in a flat noninflected manner that negates any naturalistic effect or emotional impact. Our job as audience is to figure out what they are talking about, and what may really have happened.

There are five scenes, separated by the return of the mirror effect and crashing chords, played by the same two actors. I assumed that the characters were the same, and the action was continuous. Nope. When I bought the playscript, I discovered that, while the older actor was always the father, the younger played four different characters, three clones and one original, at different times. I suppose it is understandable, though I caught the basic premise, that I didn’t decipher the sequence of events.

I’m happy I saw it. The staging and the special effects were striking. The actors, John Shrapnel and Lex Shrapnel (real father and son), gave strong and vivid performances, even if they didn’t have a chance to engage us emotionally. Fundamentally, however, the actual contents of the play were at cross-purposes with the staging. And I don’t think it was just the jet lag.

(The photo, an opera singer busking in the passageway beside Blackfriars Bridge, has nothing to do with this post. I didn’t take any pictures that day, so I’m putting this in instead.)



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