Turing play still packs a punch
We know a lot more about Alan Turing, the subject of Breaking The Code, than we did when Hugh Whitemore wrote the play in the mid 1980s. His once secret work on breaking the Enigma code during World War Two, possibly saving millions of lives, is now well publicised. The government has apologised for the appalling treatment he received because of his homosexuality and he has been pardoned for his ‘crime’. He has been the subject of an excellent film The Imitation Game and his face will soon be appearing on the £50 note.
Unlike the aforementioned movie, Breaking The Code concentrates on the prejudice against homosexuals. It does cover the wartime code breaking but the code he is breaking in this play is society’s code which dictates how we are supposed to behave. And while homosexuality may now be legal in Britain and widely if not universally accepted as natural, there are always unfair rules imposed by the society we live in and the play is a plea for valuing those people- scientists, artists, whoever- who question and break those rules. The story of this brilliant mathematician adds up to a beautifully written play.
Hugh Whitemore’s play is beautifully written
Turing’s arrest for gross indecency, his prosecution and punishment run parallel with his life story. His school friend and love of his life Christopher who died young is constantly present in his mind as inspiration and is often on stage in the background. We get a glimpse of Turing’s genius when he talks about science. He explains that even mathematics that most logical of sciences may not always be right or wrong. This parallels with his personal life where he doesn’t see behaviour as right or wrong but a matter of choices based on one’s feelings. He enjoys gay sex. He doesn’t see it as wrong. He is open about it. In many ways, he is a man for today. But his honesty was his downfall in those days.
We are told in some detail about the horror of his treatment, punishment and subsequent suicide. It is as shocking as a punch in the guts and all the more so because in the course of the play we get to know the victim, not only the great scientist but the eccentric, humorous, compassionate human being. He could be describing himself when he says a computer could be ‘kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, or enjoy strawberries and cream.’
Turing is on stage the whole time and must have as many lines as Hamlet. So the play stands or falls on the performance of the lead actor.
An enchanting portrayal by Edward Bennett
Edward Bennett is very good. I was enchanted by his portrayal of Alan Turing. If I have a reservation, it’s that he was too nice. After all, this is a person who chained his mug to the radiator pipe to prevent it being stolen or says in another prickly exchange: ‘Am I in for a lesson in morals?’ I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that spikiness in the interpretation.
This Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Christian Durham makes a good stab at telling a story once so revelatory but now so well known. It is presented in the round which give it intimacy. The lack of a set not only means the action can flow quickly and seamlessly between the past, present and memories, but also suggests the anonymity of Turing’s secret work. James Button’s excellent design uses coding sequences on the floor and boards with mathematical equations hanging above.
I particularly liked Louise Calf’s warm portrayal of Turing’s female colleague and friend Pat, and Ian Redford’s police officer Mick Ross, a subtle combination of sympathy and duty.
Breaking The Code runs at Salisbury Playhouse until 26 October 2019
Paul Lewis was given free review tickets by Salisbury Playhouse
10.10.19: Edited slightly to avoid repetition