BREAKING THE CODE
by Hugh Whitemore
Directed by Barrie Goodwin
Bollington Festival Players
Where to start? This play left me quite speechless at the end of the evening, and gave me a great deal to process over the following few days before I felt ready to sit down and write the review. I had of course heard of Alan Turing and studied his contributions to the war effort while at school, and, since then, a highway in Manchester has been named after him. His portrait is to grace the back of the new £50 note which should raise his profile in the consciousness of the wider public. As a person who owns an Apple device, I have seen and read about the “Apple” logo, that it celebrates the contribution to technology by Turing, and that it played a role in his death.
Breaking the Code is a 1986 play by Hugh Whitemore about British mathematician Alan Turing, who was a key player in the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II, and a pioneer of computer science. The play links Turing's cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.
The set for this production was very simple in its format; a black box with isolated areas for the different scenes to take place, eight in total, and in such a confined space. The director, Barrie Goodwin, knew, that with eight scenes in each act, the pace had to be good and carry the audience from one to another quite seamlessly. The use of the lighting plot, designed by Kim Creasey, to isolate sections of the stage, and the use of projection to tell the audience where the scene was placed, helped us all to keep up with this play that moved in time and place. There was very little movement of props or furniture as most had been preset. Anything that needed to be brought on was done by the actors themselves which meant there was fluidity in the play. This all meant that the audience was not distracted from the content of the play, of which some elements were difficult to understand such as the theories, but were no less absorbing. As we got to the end of the first Act, I was struck by how engrossed we all were in the intense action, so much so that you could hear a pin drop.
Michael Scott was totally captivating as Turing: there was strength in this performance. Michael was in every one of the scenes, and in each he had dialogue that was essential to the story; he delivered it in such a confident manner. There was delightful nuance in his character portrayal of the autistic Turing, from the stuttering and nervous nail biting that afflicted the man, to the vulnerability of someone trying to be true to himself in a world where laws did not allow it. This performance left me, and others around me, quite overwhelmed at the conclusion of the second act. Bravo!
The supporting actors ably helped Michael throughout this potted journey of Turing’s life.
There was an instant dislike, in the nicest possible way, of course, for Nigel Wells, as the Detective Sergeant, Mick Ross, who was like a dog with a bone when the very truthful Turing went to the police station to register a burglary. His interrogation meant, “answers leading to more questions,” and ultimately Turing confessing his homosexuality, and his liaison with Ron Millar, which initiated his fall from grace and public adulation.
James Goodall doubled up as Turing’s school friend, Christopher Morcom, and as lover, Ron Miller. There was quite a nice contrast with the characters, from the youthful, personable Morcom who was, we assume, the first male partner of Turing and object of his infatuation (as he refers to him throughout the play) with the street wise, rough and ready Miller. You just knew from the involvement with Miller that things were not going to end well. James played this opposing character well, establishing him as a person out to satisfy his own selfish needs, and have no compassion for others.
Turing’s mother, in this case played by Diane McIntyre, was very much the acerbic, cold parent who was concerned for her own social standing, but in the scene where Turing tells her that he will be charged with gross indecency, there was a warmth in the hug that they shared, and in the final scene, she could not bring herself to believe that he would take his own life. Ailsa Hay also brought a quiet and warming character to life, Patricia Green, who confesses her love for Touring but is rejected.
In a play with a dark storyline so challenging as this, there is the need for some levity and this was provided by Craig Harris, as Dillwyn Knox, who was Turing’s boss at Bletchley. While the script wasn’t laugh out loud funny, Craig’s delivery caused us to smile, and the look of confusion on his face at times established his character as forgetful, but this meant that, during the scene where he advises Turing about being careful to whom he spoke about his sexuality, was more serious, meaningful and poignant. A lovely touch of light, shade and pathos in characterisation.
During the epilogue it is suggested that Turing takes his own life by eating a cyanide laced apple. This neatly ties in the mention of the Wicked Queen in Snow White. When Turing is asked by Knox if it was an unhappy ending Turing replies, “No, it’s rather a happy ending.” One wonders if Turing was seeking that happy ending.
It is always difficult to produce a play about a real person, one that has had a life, and maintain the integrity of that person. This production, in my view, from Barrie, Michael, all the supporting actors and crew did just that. One of the quotes that was projected on screen from September 2009 by Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, says a lot about the man and his contribution to the world;
“On behalf of the British Government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am proud to say: We’re sorry. You deserved so much better.”
May I also add my thanks to the society for bringing such a thought provoking play to public attention.