WITHOUT Alan Turing, it is arguable that we would all be living under the Nazis with no computers. Hugh Whitemore’s play ‘Breaking the Code’ dates from 1986, a time before the fame and reputation of Alan Turing were firmly established. We now know that the eccentric mathematical genius masterminded the history-changing breaking of the German Enigma code in the Second World War. His pioneering work also made modern computing and artificial intelligence possible. With Derek Jacobi in the role of Turing, the play was a big success and has often been revived ever since.
The play’s focus is relentlessly on Turing himself, and Edward Bennett, in the Salisbury Playhouse’s new production, gives a superbly rich and complex performance, convincing us we are in the presence of both an unfathomable genius and a warm and fallible human. The performance’s strength is that for all that we feel we have been in the living presence of this remarkable man, Turing himself ultimately remains an enigma, and the play cleverly and cogently links the uncertainties at the roots of mathematics and philosophy with our uncertainties in knowing one another as human beings.
Bennett has a number of extended monologues to deliver, in which Turing explains his work in mathematics, code-breaking, computing and artificial intelligence. Bennett holds the audience completely spellbound with his lucid explanations and boyish enthusiasm. We feel that not only do we understand the challenging subjects, but that we’re a little closer to knowing the man.
The play presents a kaleidoscopic picture of Turing, moving freely and non-chronologically between his school days, his time at Bletchley Park during the Second World, and the events in the 1950s which led to his prosecution for gross indecency for the then illegal offence of private, consensual gay sex. Turing’s open, trusting nature leads him to unconsciously convict himself. However, the tone is not unrelentingly serious, and the play is leavened with plenty of humour.
The seven supporting roles around Bennett’s towering central performance are unfailingly strong and impressive. Ian Redford is outstanding as the decent and patient police detective who almost unwillingly finds he has to act on the evidence that Turing has naively given him. Caroline Harker, as Turing’s mother, also stands out. The scene when Turing finally tells her of his sexuality is a gripping and beautifully paced exploration of motherly love triumphing over bourgeois prejudice.
The play is performed in the round, with the reconfigured Playhouse auditorium and the uncluttered set impressively adding to the intimacy and focus of the evening.
Largely unknown at his death, Turing’s reputation has soared in the twenty-first century as the secrecy surrounding the breaking of the Enigma Code was lifted. Turing’s vital work was revealed, and public attitudes to homosexuality were utterly transformed. Turing was awarded a posthumous public pardon by the Queen in 2014 and in February of this year in the BBC TV series ‘Icons’, he was voted by the public to be the ‘Greatest Person of the Twentieth Century’. Salisbury Playhouse have produced a gripping and timely revival of this skilfully-constructed play, and you should not miss it.