Writer: Hugh Whitemore
Director: Robert Hastie
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
If ever a play deserved a revival at the Royal Exchange, it is Breaking the Code, bringing home the tale of one of Manchester’s finest minds, a mind that literally changed the course of world history and continues to do so. The play was first staged in 1986. The 30 years since have seen a revolution in information technology and a revolution in social attitudes to homosexuality, both of which would have been hard for the best futurologist to accurately predict. This play, however, has remained a striking, mostly accurate and politically important work.
The play was first staged in 1986. The 30 years since have seen a revolution in information technology and a revolution in social attitudes to homosexuality, both of which would have been hard for the best futurologist to accurately predict. This play, however, has remained a striking, mostly accurate and politically important work.
The play opens with the infamous court case that came to ruin Turing’s life, where he moves in a terrible volte face from victim to criminal at his own naive hand. The newly elected Conservative Government of 1951 was keen to crack down on behaviour that it classified as vice, and, by December of that year, Turing finds himself on the wrong side of the law. As the ongoing battle over automatic pardons for the thousands of other men similarly criminalised has vividly demonstrated, there was nothing so very unusual about that. What is particular to Turning’s prosecution was that he had entrapped himself, talking openly to the police about his sexual relationship with a much younger man.
Writer Hugh Whitemore alters the name of his lover to Ron Mille (a name Turning himself chose when he wrote a short story about the episode afterwards) and makes him more clearly working-class. Ron is engaged in a form of male prostitution that was common at the time, often involving blackmail and minor thefts. Against this peril in the present, the play moves backwards in time to Turning’s schoolboy crush and though his recruitment to Bletchley Park, platonic infatuation with a woman and on to his career at Manchester University after the war.
If the play’s revival suffers from the passage of time at all, it is perhaps only with our much stronger familiarity with the events of his life, which might now allow from the dramatic conflation of some events. One thrilling scene intercuts between the police interrogation of Turing and Miller and their first dinner, demonstrating exactly the concise story-telling that other parts of the play might’ve benefitted from.
Daniel Rigby succeeds completely as Turing. He portrays the complexity and contradictions in Turing character perfectly, from his stuttering devastation at telling his mother of his arrest, to his proud self-assertion to a secret service officer, to his incredible passion about the joy of mathematics, to his lifelong grief at the death of his childhood crush. Rigby is delicate, layered, controlled, astonishing. The supporting cast is all strong. Harry Egan brings a sexy con-man quality to Ron Miller. Phil Cheadle is surprisingly likeable as the investigating detective. Geraldine Alexander as Sara Turing memorably shows the conflicted emotions of a mother’s broken heart.
The stage design is dominated by a series of white lines of light, capable of forming a complete box around the stage, or just of providing a two-line frame around a scene. The design is effective in visualising Turning’s electronic mind, but the strips of lighting ultimately never quite assemble themselves fully into the pulsating mind of the Mark I computer that the elements hint at. So, the final effect at the end of the play is a little disappointing. Similarly, Hastie’s direction is generally effective but has the odd misfire in terms of the blocking, mostly caused by sometimes clunky attempts to deal with staging the show in the round.
This is a timely and successful revival of a significant play. In 1986, Breaking The Code illustrated, at the height of the Aids pandemic, how much more there was to LGBT culture, community and heritage than the crisis of the moment. 30 years later, it is an efficacious and sobering reminder of how a bad criminal justice system can ruin a great mind, and it also a much broader piece about the man who dreamed of an electronic consciousness to keep alive the mind of his first love. It is also now the story of the entire world all around us.
Runs until 19 November 2016 | Image: Contributed