When Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the Code made its debut back in 1986, its subject, mathematician and scientist Alan Turing, was still fairly obscure. Today, Turing’s story is far more widely known. Indeed, he’s become something close to a household name. Perhaps surprisingly, then, this new production of the play at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is its first major revival.
Turing’s crucial achievements as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War are now familiar to viewers of the recent award-winning film The Imitation Game, as well as a swathe of documentaries. The emphasis here, though, is more squarely on his homosexuality and lonely downfall. It’s a gentle, subtle piece, with some key turning points implied in dialogue rather than laid out on stage. Turing’s time at Bletchley is certainly covered, but we’re spared ‘Eureka!’ moments of experimentation with motors, valves and soldering irons, which would be challenging to dramatise effectively anyway. Breaking the Code is much more focused on Turing’s private life than his ‘Officially Secret’ one.
Here, director Rob Hastie has opted for a spare, pared-down production, with little more on stage than a wooden table and a series of interlocking light strips which are used in assorted combinations, variously suggesting an electronic brain or a technological cage. In an inspired, unexpected touch, scene changes are marked by piano melodies cribbed from Radiohead songs, which is remarkably effective.
The simplicity of the staging is a good balance for the complexity of the timeline, as the play dances about between different periods of Turing’s life. Throughout, though, he is played by the same actor, Stockport-raised Daniel Rigby. It’s a hell of a role: apart from the age changes, Rigby is rarely off-stage and is sometimes called upon to deliver lengthy, rambling monologues. To his great credit, he pulls it off.
Rigby depicts Turing as a dazzling man-child, given to gabbling excitedly and flapping his hands more often than he makes eye contact. He is a genuinely multi-layered sort of man. At times he’s shown as cowed and stammering, at others emphatic and confrontational. In particular, Turing’s sharp mind makes for some very fine comic lines, and Rigby handles these perfectly.
If there’s a downside to this, it’s that the other characters can’t help but seem rather flat in comparison. Indeed, they’re all drab 1940s figures, emotionally reined in and resplendent in shades of dark brown. As a result, some scenes play out as too stately and mannered for their own good, and the female characters have precious little to do. Measured against Turing, only his eccentric Bletchley Park boss Dillwyn Knox, played by Raad Rawi, can really hold his own.
Ultimately, though, putting the remarkable figure of Turing front and centre is the whole point here, and this adept, affecting production manages to do him justice. All told, this is a story well worth remembering, and a play well worth reviving.
Photos by Richard Davenport
Breaking the Code is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until November 19, 2016. For more information, click here.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Daniel Rigby, click here.