Breaking the Code tells the story of Alan Turing, a remarkable man who struggles all his life with a world not yet ready for him. A pioneering mathematician and forerunner of modern computer science, he was instrumental in the Allies cracking the Enigma code. The brilliance in his work was underpinned by a tragic private life, struggling with both his own homosexuality and the establishment, leading to an early death by his own hands. When history itself gives you tragedies like this, you could question the point of writing them.
The central element of the play, the character of Turing himself, is portrayed via an excellent performance by Sam Thorpe-Spinks. His lisping, nasal voice and idiosyncratic manner are captured exquisitely. His strained social interactions are almost painful to watch, yet infinitely compelling. The same man who speaks inspirationally and with delight about the beauty of mathematics and the potential of artificial intelligence, teeters on the edge of breakdown when dealing with the police or his very own mother questioning him. We are drawn to identify with a man set adrift from the society around him, where mathematics and knowledge for its own sake are treated with suspicion, and homosexuality is an abhorrent crime. The portrayal of this unfortunate man is convincing from beginning to end. Rosie Litterick plays his mother, Sara. Confident and set in her ways; she, despite her immense love for him, can never bring herself to accept his love of science or his homosexuality. The police officer Ross, courtesy of Edd Riley, is remarkably believable in his intimidating role, engendering sympathy for Turing during interrogation scenes. In many ways the play’s highlight was Turing’s gruff working class lover, played by George Morgan. The tension between them is strongly summoned, and always dangerous. His struggles with his own sexual nature are intensely interesting, as is the chemistry between him and Turing.
The structure of the play is nonlinear, with both his rise to scientific greatness and his fall presented in tandem. The audience never really thinks that there is any hope of happiness for the characters, and the simultaneous presentation of all the different time periods manages to evoke the horrible inevitability of it all.
The period is well captured and the smell of 30’s academia is ever present, with tweed jackets abounding and generally time period appropriate hair. A few hiccups occur, such as the black skinny jeans and Topman brogues of one particular character, which seems merely lazy costuming rather than modern adaptation. One element of the staging, where actors mysteriously stand offstage illuminated behind a curtain, was baffling and unnecessary. The scrawlings on a blackboard, meant to represent mathematics, were childish at best, with a prominent E=MC2 and references to the GCSE mathematics course being the height of it. Apparently Turing, one of the best minds of his age, needed to be reminded of how surds work. If there was ever evidence that more scientists should get involved in student societies, this is it. George Morgan’s performance as the tortured working class homosexual Ron does not translate into an interesting turn as Greek mathematician Nicolai, though incidentally they did have the same northern accent and mannerisms. Though double casting may be stage tradition, this was just a little bit disconcerting.
There are many words that one could describe this production with – “fun” is not one of them. If over two and half hours of this don’t sound like your cup of tea, it probably isn’t. The unremitting misery is difficult to cope with for even the most ardent fans of serious drama. Though no one would doubt Turing was unfortunate, I doubt any biographers would assert that his every word was soaked is doe-eyed misery and that he was physically incapable of smiling, laughing or flirting. The brief moments of humour that occurred were largely unintentional, with the biggest a laugh of the night coming from Turing’s incredibly serious profession of homosexuality to the girl who loved him madly, and I found the intentionally comic scenes hard to sync with the rest of the play.
There are many wonderful things about Breaking the Code. At its core it’s admirable, and its message of acceptance is one anyone can get behind. Though it may be healthy, like anything else that’s healthy, it’s hard to enjoy. I left the theatre unsatisfied, but it gave me something to take with me after I left, which is probably better. It’s not a perfect play. It’s not necessarily a play you may enjoy at the time. But yes, it is a play that I think should be seen.