In the summer of 1997, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre staged a new adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century comedy The Illusion, starring Trevor Baxter and Julia Sawalha. One entranced young audience member was 15 year-old Stockport lad Daniel Rigby who was making his first ever visit to the venue on a college outing.
“I remember the space really captured my imagination because it’s kind of like a big spaceship inside that building,” Rigby tells Northern Soul. “It’s so beautiful and at the time I thought it was very futuristic. It’s a wonderful place and I’ve been back regularly ever since. That was, what, nearly 20 years ago.”
Today, Rigby is one of the most promising British actors of his generation, and he’s about to make his first appearance on stage at the Exchange. Playing the remarkable mathematician and scientist Alan Turing in a revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code, Rigby will follow in the footsteps of Benedict Cumberbatch and Derek Jacobi.
Slowly but surely, Turing has been recognised as one of the legendary heroes of recent English history. This is thanks to his time as a uniquely gifted codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, followed by his truly ground-breaking work in the field of computers. On playing Turing, Rigby says: “He was an absolute genius. He sort of stood alone among his peers. I only know of maths as something that made me cry quite a lot, basically. It was something I absolutely hated and couldn’t do. So that part of it is hard, trying to get my head round some of the concepts that he explored in his work to the level that he was functioning at. He was a fascinating character, a unique man.”
For source material, Breaking the Code draws heavily on Andrew Hodges’ 1983 Turing biography The Enigma, the publication of which was something of a turning point in Turing’s story. Rigby explains: “When that biography came along, it did a lot of work in getting the message out to people about Alan Turing’s story and making people more aware of him and his achievements. It wasn’t until the 80s when the Official Secrets Act was lifted on exactly the type of work that they did at Bletchley and the significance of it. Since then there’s been a growing awareness of Alan and his work.”
The recent award-winning feature film The Imitation Game offered another telling of Alan Turing’s life story, again using The Enigma biography as the key source, and with Benedict Cumberbatch in the main role. Breaking the Code presents a subtly different version of the man, though.
Rigby says: “Because the play and the film draw on the same material, it’s a picture that is ostensibly similar, but there are always going to be differences and slight variations. There’s no recording that survives of Turing’s voice or any of those things that we could maybe hang our hat on and say, that’s definitely what he sounded like or that’s definitely how he moved. So each time will be a different dramatic representation.”
Breaking the Code, the original production of which starred Derek Jacobi, leaps about through Turing’s lifespan, taking him from the age of 16 right up until his death at the age of 41. Having to portray him at various stages of his life is a challenge which Rigby seems to relish.
“I think there’s an element to Alan that felt slightly frozen in time as a kid. He always had, according to reports, a child-like quality to him, so I’m kind of holding onto that. The play itself, because it jumps around, has the quality of a memory play. The character of Turing within it is almost a fixed point, even though he’s changing in terms of his age. I think it’s open to interpretation how you do that and how far you go with playing younger and older, but clearly I’m not going the ‘knee-high school socks and silly voice’ route.”
It’s common knowledge that the latter part of Turing’s life was steeped in tragedy. In 1952 he was working as deputy director of Manchester University’s computer laboratory when he was charged with gross indecency, having picked up a 19-year-old boy at the Regal Cinema on Oxford Street – a venue still in use today as the Dancehouse Theatre. To avoid a prison sentence, Turing agreed to undergo chemical castration. Two years later, he was found dead of cyanide poisoning in act widely regarded as suicide borne of profound unhappiness and desperation. He was 41.
In 2013, Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon. Even in this respect, he turns out to have been pioneering. Although a government version of a new piece of legislation, dubbed ‘the Turing law’, is still expected to pass, in recent days the Bill, designed to bring posthumous pardons to thousands of similarly convicted gay men, was scuppered by a Conservative Minister in the House of Commons.
It is to be hoped that, eventually, Turing’s achievements are no longer overshadowed by the sadness of his early death.
“I think the world generally, or at least the worlds of computing and mathematics, really do appreciate him for what he achieved,” Rigby says. “In the scandal that surrounded his death, they buried him for too long and didn’t really recognise him in the way that they should. He didn’t even get his pardon until 2013. But within certain circles I think that the magnitude of the work that he did is fully appreciated. I don’t really know, in the general public’s mind, what the emphasis is. It’s certainly an extraordinary story so it does sort of get your attention, the fact that his end was so tragic.”
As well as some sterling theatre work, Rigby himself is becoming an increasingly familiar on British television of late, thanks to roles such as the eccentric young inventor Donald in the outlandish, ink-black Channel 4 comedy Flowers. He won a BAFTA for Best Actor for his performance as the young Eric Morecambe in the acclaimed 2011 TV biopic Eric and Ernie, and he’s even tapped into that tricky pre-school demographic as the narrator of the recent Teletubbies revival. And let’s not forget From There to Here, a BBC drama about the 1996 Manchester bomb.
Back in 2013, when the starring role in Doctor Who was last up for grabs, tabloids suggested that he was in the running for that, too. This came as quite a surprise to Rigby, who insists that he knew nothing about it.
“Certainly I’d be interested in it if I’d ever got a phone call, but I don’t know where that came from,” he says. “That was really weird because it became a story in the newspapers. People were sending me links to pictures of this story and I hadn’t heard anything. But there’s all this extreme secrecy which surrounds Doctor Who and the casting of it, so whenever I said to anyone, ‘no, that’s really not on the cards’, they’d say, ‘ah, well, you would say that”.
And yet, perhaps there is some strange kinship there between the characters of the Time Lord and Alan Turing.
“Yeah, I guess Turing was the sort of a man who doesn’t quite fit, who stands alone, who is a genius. And his nickname at Bletchley was ‘Prof’.”
By Andy Murray
Breaking the Code is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from October 28 until November 19, 2016. For more information, click here.