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Company engineers a genetic dilemma

The Y Touring Theatre Company, a much respected mover in educational theatre last week began its latest national tour of schools with an important project commissioned by the Wellcome Centre for Medical Science under its "Science through the arts" banner.

Nicola Baldwin gives her play the ironic title of The Gift, because it deals with the decidedly "Greek" gifts of recessive genes, and the new-found ability, through genetic engineering, to avoid them.

Annie, brilliant daughter, star pupil and captain of the football team, develops Friedreich's ataxia at 14, a lingering and humiliating death sentence.

The play studies the interaction of the disease (an inherited disorder in which the sufferer has increasingly shaky movements and unsteady gait), the victim, her mother and her younger brother.

By a fast-forward device, we also watch the next-generation drama, where the brother, by chance marrying another carrier of the recessive gene, takes advantage of the technique of super-ovulation to select an embryo, not only free of the damaged gene but also with "athletic" potential.

This 2020 family, the son angry at being a "designer" child, the mother and father at odds over the choice, are on stage in the play's second half. Here the audience is cast as the "ethical committee" for a tabloid newspaper sponsoring a couple who wish to select out the ataxia gene - and the father's "shortness" gene.

Facts and opinions fly to and fro and the audience votes by applause. Only an hour or so later, I am in the remarkably similar world of Euripides, again being guided through a moral maze.

In the spacious theatre at Edinburgh Academy, the North London Collegiate School mounted an impressive production of the rarely performed The Phoenician Women, the play that deals with the deaths of Jocasta and her sons, before Antigone's story.

Director Janet Podd has drawn unity and strength from the chorus, and an intensity of feeling and intelligent understanding from the solo players that sex or age has become irrelevant.

Where mature actors have to use technique, these young players have been able to draw on those deep, "Juliet" wells of emotion. This, and the sharp, at times brutal, translation by David Thompson, involves the audience deeply in the anguish and pain that inhabited Thebes.

And all because Laius's lust overbore the warning "sow not that seed, the gods have ruled against it - that child (Oedipus) will kill you you". What, I wonder, would Laius, or Euripides, made of the techniques of super-ovulation?

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