Puneet Varma (Editor)

A Number

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Written by
Caryl Churchill

First performance
23 September 2002

Original language
English language

Date premiered
23 September 2002

Caryl Churchill

A Number t3gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcSi5hMMZNt56Zniw

Salter Bernard 1 Bernard 2 Michael Black

Human cloning and identity

Caryl Churchill plays, Other plays

A number

A Number is a 2002 play by English playwright Caryl Churchill which addresses the subject of human cloning and identity, especially nature versus nurture. The story, set in the near future, is structured around the conflict between a father (Salter) and his sons (Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black) – two of whom are clones of the first one.


A number

Contextual Information

A Number is an original work published in 2002 in association with the Royal Court Theatre of London. The play was written during a time of public debate over the ethics of cloning. The cloning of Dolly the sheep, the creation of human embryos at Advanced Cell Technology, and the cloning of a kitten gave rise to controversy concerning possible human cloning.

Plot synopsis

A Number is set in the near future where human cloning has become possible, albeit still looked down upon and possibly illegal.

Bernard 2 discovers that he is actually a clone of his "brother" (Bernard 1), who was killed years before. Salter, his aging father, explains that he agreed to a cloning experiment to bring back his dead son. But, unbeknownst to Salter, the doctors had unethically made several more clones. Salter decides that they should sue the doctors, which soothes the shaken Bernard 2.

In the next scene, the still alive and angry Bernard 1 visits Salter while Bernard 2 is away. He has learned about the clones, and is furious at his father for doing it. Salter then admits that the clones were meant to give him another chance at raising Bernard, without any of his many parental mistakes. Bernard 1 grows increasingly agitated, before threatening to murder Bernard 2.

Later, after Bernard 1 has left, Bernard 2 returns, having met Bernard 1 in the park. He has learned the truth about the situation, and now hates Salter for what he has done. Bernard 2 decides to leave the country for a while, both to get away from Salter and because he fears that Bernard 1 might try to kill him. Salter tries to convince him not to go, or at least to come back soon, but Bernard 2 refuses, saying he needs to go.

Some time later, Bernard 1 returns and tells Salter that he followed and killed Bernard 2 after he left the country. Salter, stricken with grief, demands to know the details, but Bernard 1 refuses to say anything. Bernard 1 then leaves and kills himself, leaving Salter alone. Salter then decides to meet the other clones of his son, starting with the one named Michael Black. Michael, who never knew Salter, is a happily married maths teacher with three children. He is completely undisturbed that he is a clone, and tells Salter that he does not care. Salter demands to know more about him, particularly about something personal and unique, but Michael cannot answer. Salter then becomes unsatisfied with what Michael can give him.


  • Salter: a man in his early sixties, he was married and had one son. His wife committed suicide by throwing herself under a train when their son was only two. He would raise their son alone, but due to his drinking and the son's issues, he would neglect him and eventually send him away. He would then clone his son (Bernard 2) in an attempt to try again to be a better father. A pathological liar, he attempts to hide the truth of what he's done from his sons.
  • Bernard (B2): His son, thirty-five, intended clone of his first son, made to replace his original son, Bernard 1. He is very mild-mannered and emotional.
  • Bernard (B1): His son, forty. First and original son of Salter. He was a difficult and disturbed child, who Salter sent away when he was 4. He would grow to have an explosive temper and hate Salter for what he did to him.
  • Michael Black: His son, thirty-five. An unauthorized clone of Salter’s first son. He is married with three children, the oldest aged twelve, and is a mathematics teacher.
  • Staging

    Churchill gives no stage directions and no indication of a setting for the play. In the 2002 production, the stage was described by one critic as a “bare blank design” with “no relation to domestic realism.” The costumes of the play were as simple as the stage design. Salter always wore a rumpled looking suit, sometimes expensive looking, but sometimes not. The various Bernards usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, but sometimes a sweatshirt.

    Original production

    The play debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The production was directed by Stephen Daldry and designed by Ian MacNeil and featured the following cast:

  • Salter – Michael Gambon
  • Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black – Daniel Craig
  • Lighting was designed by Rick Fisher and Ian Dickinson was the sound designer. The play won the 2002 Evening Standard Award for Best Play.


    The play was revived at the Sheffield Crucible studio in October 2006 starring real-life father and son Timothy West and Samuel West. This production later played at the The Chocolate Factory in 2010 and at the Fugard Theatre, Cape Town in 2011.

    The play was revived at The Nuffield Theatre (Southampton) in February 2014 with John and Lex Shrapnel to huge critical acclaim. It transferred to the Young Vic Theatre in June 2015. Zinnie Harris will direct the play at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in April 2017.

    US premiere

    In 2004, the play made its American debut at the New York Theatre Workshop in a production starring Sam Shepard (later played by Arliss Howard) and Dallas Roberts.

    LA/OC, California premiere

    In February/March 2009, the play made its Los Angeles/Orange County debut at the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in a production directed by Scott Barber, starring Vince Campbell and Mark Coyan.


    A Number was adapted by Caryl Churchill for television, in a co-production between the BBC and HBO Films. Starring Rhys Ifans and Tom Wilkinson, it was broadcast on BBC Two on 10 Sep 2008.


    A Number Wikipedia

    Similar Topics