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by Anthony Neilson

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Tebut Isfar

ta ' Clare Azzopardi





A Number

Author:   Caryl Churchill

Director:   Chris Gatt

Venue:   St James Cavalier, Valletta

Dates: 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 October 2012

Cast:   John Suda, Mikhail Basmadjian

Summary:   The play begins with a father, Salter, and his son Bernard (B2) discussing the fact that the son has found out that he has been cloned. The father claims not to have known this and claims that a hospital must have stolen his cells at some point and made illegal copies of him. He talks about suing the hospital for money. The son then mentions that there were others and the father admits that the son is a clone. He says that the original son and his mother died in a car crash and that he wanted his son back so he had him cloned. Then the original son confronts Salter and has a discussion about the clones, Salter again denies knowledge about the others. It turns out Salter lied about the mother dying in a car crash; she killed herself by throwing herself under a train; and that the original son did not die, but was instead 'sent away' by Salter, unable or unwilling to care for him due to his grief. The first clone then finds out the original is still alive. Bernard (B1) meets with Bernard (B2) and murders him, and then proceeds to commit suicide. Salter then meets with Michael Black, another clone. Michael Black lives a very normal life, has a wife and three children, and is happy. Salter ends up miserable and seemingly alone even though he knows that there are 19 more clones.


What the Papers said:



Caryl Churchill’s play in one long act, A Number (Unifaun at St James Cavalier) portrays an imaginary case of quite extraordinary human cloning.  It is not about the ethics of human cloning itself, though the fact that Salter, the elderly man who is one of the play’s two characters has commissioned the cloning of his son, is shown as an act of selfishness.


We learn that the original cloning went far beyond what Salter had wanted and that the scientist who had effected it had gone on to produce nineteen more clones, all of whom for a long time are unknown to Salter.  In the first scene he meets Bernard, the first clone whom Salter brought up after having sent off  his original son to a home and who has found out from the hospital to his dismay that there are quite a few others who seem to be identical with him.  He then meets his original son, also Bernard, a difficult and violent man who hates his father for having got rid of him in his childhood and utters threats against the person cloned from him.  We meet the two men in two more scenes but by the fifth scene, when Salter meets Michael, one of the remaining nineteen, we learn that the two Bernards are no longer alive.


Salter has now lost not just the son he has begotten but also the man cloned from that son, the son whom he clearly loves.  In this last scene, with an ending that is probably the least satisfying feature of the play, Salter tries to find out what makes Michael tick and is disappointed to discover how ordinary this man is – how unlike his  real son, emotional and unpredictable, and the first clone with his anguished attempts to make sense of his relationship with Salter.  In fact, Michael’s ordinariness comes as a relief to the audience, and the little laughs he produced from time to time were inevitable.  I certainly cannot understand why someone was so shocked at these reactions on the first night of the production.


Chris Gatt has done his usual fine job with the direction, producing an action that is always taut and paying great attention to such matters as costume and make-up – essential to differentiate the two Bernards and Michael.  His casting of Mikhail Basmadjian, surely one of the ablest actors on the Maltese stage today, as the two Bernards and Michael is unexceptionable.  Voice, walk, manners and, above all, temperament are sharply distinguished and the three men are three unmistakable characters.  Churchill’s play comes down very heavily in favour of nurture in the never-ending nature versus nurture debate. 


Bernard the son has been neglected, his mother was profoundly unhappy and committed suicide, and his being sent to a home after his mother’s death has filled him with hatred and strengthened a tendency to be violent.  Basmadjian makes him darkly dangerous, whereas Bernard the clone, who has been brought up at home, is nervous and his morale has deteriorated on discovering he is a clone.  His fears about not having a true identity and his deep disappointment when he discovers how many lies Salter has told him about himself and his mother make this characterisation surely the most interesting of the three.  Churchill’s extraordinary use of unfinished sentences and independent phrases are used by Basmadjian to bring out the uncertainties governing this man.


His smiling Michael is surely the most straightforward characterisation of the three but he keeps the audience wondering why Salter cannot take this nice man to his bosom and lead the rest of his days in his company.


John Suda’s Salter is just as remarkable; I was glad to see once more the old Suda who was for several years Malta’s leading dramatic actor.  His Salter is deeply selfish, an unhesitating liar until his lies have been found out, and he excites our contempt when he tries to assuage the anger of the two Bernards by suggesting they might be able to make a great deal of money by suing the hospital for having produced, without the consent of the people involved, a good number of clones.  He has been a bad father, as he readily admits, leaving his son Bernard alone as the child screamed out of fear at night, and a poor husband: when Bernard’s mother threw herself under a train, Salter was drinking with friends, while the child was alone at home.


Suda, like Basmadjian, makes Churchill’s dialogue of hesitation into a strength in his creation of the character.  This hesitation is of a piece with his slightly shambling walk, troubled expressions, and occasional outbursts of helpless rage. Salter is not a man one can like, but it is difficult not to feel a touch of pity for him at the end.


 Drama students should make it a point to study his performance as well as Basmadjian’s.  The play is being performed for the last time tonight.  Not to be missed.

Dr Paul Xuereb - The Sunday Times, 28 October 2012 




When an experiment may go a bit too far....

When an ethical hot potato makes it to the stage and permeates the cultural consciousness of a country, then it’s time that some serious thought be given to the manner in which it is being dealt with by the powers that be.

While our country is still grappling with the measures imposed by the new IVF Bill, I found the themes in Caryl Churchill’s excellent play, A Number,currently playing at St James Cavalier, rather difficult to reconcile with our country’s stance on the aforementioned law.

The fact of the matter is that Churchill’s play focuses on the social, emotional and moral repercussions of cloning – which takes a highly-skewed side-track from any form of assisted fertility.

Unifaun Theatre’s production of this two-hander, featuring veteran actor John Suda in the role of Salter, the father, and the accomplished Mikhail Basmadjian as the human in question and his clones, painted a poignant picture of what might occur in a situation where an original is cloned and the long-term effects of this experiment go too far – much farther than Salter originally planned.

The tragedy of A Number lies in its title – the number of attempts made by Salter to get it right, so to speak, as a father; coupled with the number (which is never quite specified) of extra clones that were created without his knowledge by unscrupulous doctors.

Two of these clones are played by Basmadjian, along with the original son, Bernard 1, whose vindictive streak and resentment at having been rejected in childhood exposes a far darker side than one might imagine.

What was so terrifying to consider was that the two clones, Bernard 2 and later Michael Black, were so much more amiable and pleasant men, exposing the fact that nurture has as important a role to play as nature in character formation.

Suda gave his Salter the emotional depth it required to propel him as both a deluded, selfish man whose sole ambition is to redeem himself by means of providing the best he can for “the best son” he can have, to the detriment of his original son; and as a man who is deeply sorry for the long-term result of his actions.

Rather than appear to be playing the same role with split personalities, Basmadjian, on the other hand, managed very successfully to create three distinct character strains which were still linked in terms of perspective but whose demeanour is quite varied and distinguished among the three to good effect.

Salter’s constant dwelling and later probing on whether one of the clones he’d just found out about, Michael Black, was happy and his implication that he’d rather like to think that his life was not as pleasant as Bernard 2’s was shocking, because it exposed the father’s underlying desire for achieving perfection on his own terms.

The directorial vision that Chris Gatt had was executed with solid timing and clever lighting.

It was clear from the onset that this performance was going to work because it touched a variety of levels – the technical, the interpretative and, most importantly, the communicative. It certainly gives one food for thought and makes for a good night out.

Andre Delicata - The Times, 24 October 2012

Theatre Review:  A Number

A dimly-lit theatre and the sight of different-sized marbles under a spotlight gave a subtle hint of the underlying themes behind A Number. This central image engaged the audience from the start of what was expected to be an interesting night out at the theatre. Starring the likes of theatre veterans John Suda and Mikhail Basmadjian, Unifaun Theatre’s latest production promised to be worthwhile.

 A Number, by Caryl Churchill, addresses the subject of human cloning, IVF, and genetics and identity. The story, set in the near future, is structured around the conflict between a father, Salter (Suda) and his sons, Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black (Basmadjian). Two of his sons are clones of the other. The play takes the concept of nature vs nurture to an unprecedented level, whilst Salter loves one of the clones more than his original son, giving the audience lots to think about.

 The script is particularly striking as a period of time passes in between the scenes and that gap is filled by the characters’ dialogue, meaning that there are constant revelations as the story unfolds, creating nail-biting tension. The dialogue is very repetitive in a clever way, and sentences are often incomplete and thoughts never finished, meaning that the audience are hanging on on the characters’ every word.

 The two-hander was tightly directed by Chris Gatt who complimented the thought-provoking script. Gatt seemed to be conscious of the great power of the dialogue and so kept the set very basic and organic, giving the audience nothing to distract them from the issue at hand. Sometimes the true strength of a director lies in letting his actors shine; and shine they did.

 John Suda and Mikhail Basmadian were perfectly cast in their respective roles as they kept the audience’s attention throughout; not once did their energy falter. Particularly striking was Basmadian’s ability to play the sons distinctly without making them caricatures. The differences between the characters were played with great subtlety and his strong performance alone made this production a must-see. John Suda also held his own as a man who is going through deep emotional turmoil due to the mistakes he has made in his past. The depth of his performance was definitely powerful, especially physically, as he successfully portrayed a man who was losing everything.

 The thought-provoking nature of the production might scare away audiences that just want fluffy entertainment. This is a play for those who want to experience theatre rather than just enjoy it, as Caryl Churchill doesn’t hesitate to tackle issues that other writers might shy away from due to their controversial nature. The script doesn’t provide closure but leaves the audience asking answerless questions, creating great topic for conversation on the drive home or over post-performance cocktails.

 Vikesh Godhwani, Andre Agius - Insiteronline, 5 November 2013




Il-kelma cloning mhux xi kelma sabiha. Skont id-dizzjunarju, clone hu d-dixxendentli gej minn individwu wiehed minghajr l-uzu tas-sess permezz ta’ qtugh jewb’separazzjoni / b’fissjoni, partenogenesi ecc., individwu li jkun prodott b’dan il-mod.(Concise Maltese/ English Dictionary – Aquilina. )
Caryl Churchill, il-kittieba Ingliza maghrufa ghax-xogholijiet tal-palk, fis-sena2002 kitbet dramm li gab lill-udjenza wicc imb’wicc ma’ din il-kelma u l-processli timplika. Matul l-att wiehed tad-dramm A NUMBER, segwejna l-inkwiet linqala’ bejn il-missier Salter (John Suda) u ibnu (Bernard 1 mahdum minn MikhailBasmadjian) meta dan tal-ahhar sar jaf li hu kien cloned, jigifieri kien biss kopja ta’huh (Bernard l-originali) u li bhalu kien hemm gozz iehor. Missieru ghall-ewwelm’ammettix li kien jaf li ibnu (Bernard 1 li tant kien ihobb) kien rizultat tal-processta’ cloning, anzi jwahhal fl-isptar u f’xi tabib mhux maghruf li kien ha celloli hajjinminghandu u minnhom holoq partita Bernards ohrajn. Sahansitra qal li kien qedjahsibha li jfittex lill-isptar ghad-danni. Salter kien gideb kemm felah lil Bernard1 . Mhux talli kien hbielu l-fatt li hu kien kien jaf bil-cloning izda kien sakkar lilBernard originali f’istitut u anke gideb meta qal li l-omm kienet mietet b’dizgrazzjatat-traffiku meta fil-fatt kienet mietet b’suwicidju. Wara hafna qal li tant kien qalbumaqsuma ghall-mewt ta’ ibnu Bernard (l-originali) li kien ta permess li jigi ikklownjatMatul id-dramm , il-missier iltaqa’ ma’ tlett Bernards li rajnihom it-tlieta fuq il-palk fit-Teatru Tond tal-Kavallier ta’ San Gakbu – kollha mahdumin minn Basmadjian.Ibnu originali kien kiber f’ragel vjolenti u rrabbjat ghal dak li kien ghadda minnu uspicca biex qatel lil huh u wara kkommetta suwicidju. Salter, il-missier, irnexxielujsib Bernard iehor (li kien cloned ukoll) izda dan kien differenti ghal kollox mill-ohrajn. Kien ragel fabbli, ghalliem, mizzewweg bit-tfal, wiehed mill-miljuni ta’ jghixu hajjithom minghajr ebda daqq ta’ trombi .Salter, minkejja li kien ghad fadallu numru ta’ clones li kien ghadu ma ltaqaxmaghhom, spicca wahdu u mdejjaq iktar milli qatt kien.
Din fil-qosor hi l-istorja ta’ dan id-dramm li jien inqisu li ghandu l-ingredjenti kollhabiex jissejjah tragedja. John Suda, fil-parti ta’ Salter il-missier, ghadda minn gamutshih ta’ emozzjonijiet. Filli rrabjat, filli apologetiku, filli mimli mhabba ghal Bernard1 l-ewwel clone, filli ddisprat u ma jafx fejn se jaqbad jaghti rasu. Spikkat ir-reghba likellu u n-nuqqas ta’ rgulija, nieqes minn kull principju, izda minkejja kollox thassartughax hareg ritratt ta’ ragel debboli minkejja l-ghajjat li ghajjat. Kemm hawn niesbhalu!!  Mikhail Basmadjian kien eccezzjonali . Irnexxielu johrog ritratt tat-tliet Bernards– l-originali kattiv , ahdar u jobghod lil-missieru u lil huh talli serqulu l-identita` ,Bernard 1dizilluz u rrabjat ghall-gideb u l-imgieba ta’ missieru u Bernard 2 kuntentbil-hajja semplici u ordinarja li kien ighix, bniedem kuntent b’li ghandu.
Id-direzzjoni ta’ Chris Gatt ghenet biex iz-zewg atturi jzommu l-attenzjoni tal-udjenzali segwiet b’attenzjoni kbira l-avvenimenti li kienu qed isehhu quddiemhom. Ma kontx tisma’ hoss wiehed u kulhadd kien qed jezamina kull kelma li ntqalet. Forsi ghax is-suggett kien wiehed serju, biex hadd ma jgerfex il-processi naturali?
Unifaun Theatre Productions – Adrian u Sarah Buckle - u St James Cavalier ipproducew dan ix-xoghol ta’ Caryl Churchill.

Joyce Guillaummier - It-Torca, 4 November 2013


photos by Joseph A. Borg.