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Theatre Review: A Number

24 September 2012
Appeared in BioNews 674

A Number

By Caryl Churchill

Organised by the Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics Network and by the Traverse Theatre

Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, Edinburgh EH1 2ED, UK

Tuesday 11 September 2012

'A Number' by Caryl Churchill, Traverse Theatre, Tuesday 11 September 2012

A Number is about identity, ownership, the desire for a second chance and - here's the science hook - reproductive cloning. This tenth anniversary reading of Caryl Churchill's play was followed by a discussion panel with the director Peter Arnott, embryologist Professor Keith Campbell and sociologist Professor Sarah Cunningham-Burley, chaired by Dr Adèle Langlois. It was produced in association with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Genomics Policy and Research Forum.

In an unspecified place in a vague near-future, a father talks to the beloved clone of his son about the clone's recent discovery of his origins. The father is then surprised by a visit from his estranged and angry original son, who also threatens his cloning/brother. After the murder of the clone by the original son offstage, the son returns to speak to his father before committing suicide.

Bereaved, the father seeks out a second clone he has never met before, one of 'a number' of others made without his knowledge. Churchill was clearly on the 'nurture' side of the nature versus nurture debate, with the unwilling progenitor and his two clones dramatically different in character despite shared genetics. The play explores how they are affected by the discovery of their artificial 'twins' late in life.

The father who had his son cloned could be interpreted in many different ways. Was he simply trying to get a second chance to be a better parent? Is he a monster, a Dr Frankenstein, who warps and discards his sons? He is shown as manipulative, lying, pathetic, dealing with the results of technology he did not understand or control, which he used to try to solve a problem child of his own making. The actors, Sandy Neilson and Finn den Hertog, prepared their deeply engaging reading in only a day.

The debate after the play was intense and wide-ranging, with an engaged and diverse audience challenging the panel and each other. Key themes included the ownership of genetic material versus genetic information and the misguided desire for scientists to hand down ethical instructions along with technological ones (a 'new priesthood').

While the father talks petulantly of 'making some money' out of the unauthorised multiple cloning of his son as a comic aside, today controversy boils around commercial interests in personal genetics. The panel discussion made clear that the way we interpret these issues is still legally and ethically inconsistent. One audience member made the excellent point that building an ethical framework on these issues cannot be left to scientists.

The panel discussed media responses to advances in genetics in the last ten years and the cyclical canonisation and demonisation of science as public hype is followed by public debunking. Professor Campbell pointed out that the publicity around Dolly did scientists a favour, forcing them to talk openly to the public, to reduce the media hype around their results and demonstrate that changes or reversals in scientific thought represent progress rather than failure.

Assisted reproduction was also debated. Opponents - all men - mentioned global overpopulation and potential future harms of extreme and untested reproductive technologies, fostered by insufficiently regulated research. Proponents - all women - spoke of the right of the individual to give birth to a child of their own and the need to control their own reproduction. Make of the gender divide what you will. In 'A Number', 19 or 20 cloned men exist. Interestingly, no mention was made of their egg donors, surrogates or birth mothers, in play or discussion - a case of the arguments and introspection around genetics becoming divorced from biology.

This was a great play and a fascinating panel discussion which kept me thinking for days after the event. The ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum has several upcoming events following 'A Number' which on the strength of this evening I highly recommend.

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