Review Breaking The Code
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Review: ‘Breaking the Code’ – Salisbury Playhouse
By Helena Gomm
Images: Helen Murray
The title of this play refers not only to Alan Turing’s success in cracking the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code, used by the Germans to send secret messages during World War II, but also to his refusal to conform to the social codes prevalent at the time, most notably by his open acknowledgement of his homosexuality.
In a podcast released by Wiltshire Creative in which actors Edward Bennett and Julian Firth (Turing and Knox in the show) discuss Breaking the Code and their roles in it, Bennett refers to a newspaper review of the original production which questioned why we needed to know ‘about this pervert’. I have been unable to verify the accuracy of this reference, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. In 1986, when I first saw the play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, AIDS was just beginning to extend its grip on the UK and the gay community was widely vilified for having ‘brought it upon themselves’.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher were whipping up unprecedented levels of homophobic hysteria through a number of insidious ‘family values’ campaigns. Despite the fact that homosexuality had been partially decriminalised in 1967, in 1989 there were 2,022 recorded offences of gross indecency in the UK, almost as many as the 2,034 recorded in 1954 when male homosexuality was totally illegal.
Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician now widely credited with shortening the Second World War by at least two years through the development of a machine capable of cracking Nazi codes, fell foul of the gross indecency law in 1952. By 1954 he was dead, at the age of 41.
Hugh Whitemore’s powerful, moving and compassionate play charts the main events of Alan Turing’s life, from the friendships of his school days to his code-breaking work and relationships with his colleagues at Bletchley Park, the sexual liaison that leads to his downfall and his interactions with the police officer who doggedly turns Turing’s initial report of a burglary, where he is the victim, into an accusation of gross indecency, where he is the perpetrator.
The play is presented in the round, with a very clever and deceptively simple set designed by James Button. This has five main stage platforms hovering above a collection of seemingly abandoned filing cabinets and archive boxes, effectively bringing to mind the destruction and abandonment of all the records of the work done at Bletchley Park, once Britain’s best-kept secret, when the war was over.
The platforms are decorated as if by a carpet, whose design of columns of letters and numbers is based on a piece of decoding paper found stuffed into a gap in the ceiling of Turing’s former office. It is assumed that this was done to block a draught, and it is one of the very few artefacts of wartime Bletchley that have survived.
Above the stage platforms hang panels of perspex bearing the binary codes that form the basis of computer programming, together with equations and working drawings taken from Turing’s notebooks.
The play is episodic and the episodes are not chronological, but the different platforms allow Edward Bennett, in a stunning performance as Turing, to move rapidly between one scene and one period of time and the next. This effectively means that he is on stage for the entire play, but Bennett’s concentration never lapses and the pace never slackens.
It also allows explicit connections to be made between different events, facilitating an exploration of the effect the different characters have on each other and how events from Turing’s past have a resonance in his later life.
The brooding presence at the side of the stage of Christopher Morcom (played by Hubert Burton), almost certainly Turing’s first love, who dies while they are still at school, is a memorable feature of the production, explained by Turing’s assertion that his friend’s death is the inspiration for him to reach for greater heights and to try to achieve all that Morcom might have accomplished, had he lived.
In a sense, Turing’s life is lived in memory of Morcom, whose death feeds his obsession over whether the mind can operate independently of the body and what this might mean in terms of building a machine capable of performing all that a human can do.
Turing believes that such a machine might even be deemed to possess a soul, and he envisages it as capable of kindness. I find it interesting that Detective Sergeant Ross (Ian Redford) seems to operate very much like a computer, but with none of the kindness that Turing hopes to find in a machine capable of rational thought.
Once Ross’s cogs are whirring, following Turing’s artless confession that the man who tipped him off about the burglar is not, as he first claimed, a brush salesman, but is, in fact, the man he is having an affair with, the process of prosecution is put in place.
Ross sees no way back and no reason or need to let the matter drop. Ross can only see in black and white and in linear progression, while Turing has the capacity to see a much broader spectrum of colours and a wider avenue of possibilities.
This is a play with many layers to be unwrapped, and director Christian Durham skilfully connects the threads of Turing’s complex and multi-faceted life like synapses in the brain.
I particularly like the recurring appearance of apples. While waiting for his interview with Dillwyn Knox at Bletchley Park, Turing kills time by going to the cinema to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which the heroine takes a bite from a poisoned apple supplied by her wicked stepmother.
Many years later, Turing himself dies by taking a bite from an apple laced with cyanide, an event prefigured by the appearance on stage of Ron Miller, Turing’s lover, toying with an apple, which Turing eventually takes off him and bites into.
Of course, biting into apples has long been taken as a metaphor for seeking knowledge, harking back to the Biblical story of the forbidden fruit, and Turing’s thirst for knowledge is unquestionably insatiable.
Incidentally, it is apparently a myth that the icon of Apple computers is a tribute to Turing. When asked whether this was true, Steve Jobs is reported to have said ‘God, we wish it were. It’s just a coincidence.’ And the bite taken out of the apple in the icon is apparently just there for scale, so that people don’t think it’s a cherry!
Whitemore is never explicit about whether he sees Turing’s death as intentional or accidental. Without a doubt, Turing’s mother Sara (a moving and sensitive portrayal by Caroline Harker) cannot entertain the idea that her son, who as a boy cycled 60 miles during the General Strike so as not to miss his first day at school, would ever kill himself.
Certainly, in the play, Turing is not presented as being unduly distressed by the chemical castration imposed upon him by the court in return for a probationary sentence, which is often cited as the reason for his suicide.
He almost jokes at a picnic with former fiancée Pat Green (Turing was attractive to women if not attracted by them) that the estrogen he is being forced to take has caused him to grow breasts and he may have to start wearing a bra.
Apparently, there are people who believe his death could have been an accident – Turing was known for his experiments and famous for his carelessness. Of course, there are also conspiracy theorists who claim that Turing’s sexuality made him a prime target during the Cold War, and that he was eradicated by the secret service, paranoid that he might be blackmailed into revealing state secrets.
An uncomfortable visit from a certain ‘John Smith’ (creepily played by Fraser Wilson with just the right measure of polite menace) indicates that the authorities do regard Turing as a threat, despite the undoubted loyalty, discretion and patriotism he demonstrated during the war years.
So, why do we ‘need to know about this pervert’? Because we owe him and others like him an inestimable debt.
The commitment to secrecy enforced on the workers of Bletchley Park was taken so seriously by them that it took many years for the truth of what they achieved to come out. Many took their secrets to their graves. In fact, when a reunion was arranged 30 years after the end of the war, two attendees were amazed to find their spouse was also at the party. They had been married for 20 years and neither had any idea that the other had also worked at Bletchley Park.
Fortunately, times have changed, if only with the lumbering speed of the early computers. The importance of Alan Turing’s contribution to the war effort has been recognised and his reputation has been ‘rehabilitated’. In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government, recognising his contribution to the war and saying that he ‘deserved better’. This was followed in 2013 by a posthumous pardon.
Turing will soon be the face of the new £50 note, due to go into circulation in 2021. Moreover, in a recent BBC poll, he beat the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Pablo Picasso to the title of the ultimate icon of the 20th century.
As this play makes clear, when we lost Alan Turing, we lost not only a man of considerable warmth and charm, but also a brain of immeasurable worth – so much more than a lump of ‘cold porridge’, as he describes it in a memorable address to the pupils of his old school.
Turing once pointed out that ‘we can only see a short distance, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done’. One can only imagine what further heights this outstanding man could have achieved had his life not been cut short.
I urge you to go and see this very fine production, which will be showing at Salisbury Playhouse until October 26th.