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Michael Longhurst uses mirrors to unsettling effect in his revival of Caryl Churchill's great play.
Metaphorically holding up a mirror to society is one thing. Here’s a piece of theatre that challenges each audience member to look themselves directly in the eye. Michael Longhurst’s production of Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play about cloning is staged, by designer Tom Scutt, within a mirrored box. The audience is split into four around its edges, and watches through one-way glass as if observing a police interrogation or a laboratory experiment. If this weren’t intense enough, inbetween scenes the lights shut out on the performers and the mirrors turn on the audience. With an uncomfortable jolt you see your own face within the crowd.
Meanwhile, real-life father and son John and Lex Shrapnel are sweating it out inside. Shrapnel Snr is Salter, a blustering but increasingly broken man who has used cloning technology for a second chance at parenting. Shrapnel Jnr plays three of his 20 identical sons without a costume change, differentiating them so effectively you’d swear his stubble grows and recedes.
Their tense and darkly comic encounters, including one of the most devastating speeches ever delivered from parent to child, are reflected endlessly in the mirrors, each scene exploding into an infinity of parallel worlds or paling imitations. Echoes of Dreamthinkspeak’s ‘Hamlet’ and Tim Crouch’s ‘The Audience’ aside, the staging is uniquely stifling: it’s like being trapped in a kaleidoscope of human pain.
She may have five works in production this year (including this transfer from Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre), but Churchill moves too intuitively with the times to be anything so narrow as a ‘playwright of the moment’. ‘A Number’ was written in the days of Dolly the Sheep, when cloning technology was fresh and our fears the stuff of sci-fi horror. With her usual precision of craft and force of insight, Churchill tweezered the topic onto the petri dish of a one-hour play. The moral, psychological and philosophical questions continue to multiply.