Many people have come to Alan Turing’s story via the much lauded 2014 film, The Imitation Game, in which he was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. However, if there was more justice and less homophobia in the world, Turing’s name would be instantly recognised along with his monumental achievement during World War II. Turing cracked the diabolically complex Enigma code which was being used by the Nazis to encrypt their tactical correspondence. Had Turing not achieved this, WWII might have ended very differently.
Alas for Turing, he broke another code, a social code of morals – he was a confessed, active homosexual. As long as they were allowed to use his magnificent brain, British authorities turned a blind eye to how Turing used his body. Once his intellectual currency diminished, so too did tolerance of his indiscretions – and, at the time, homosexuality was not merely frowned upon, it was illegal.
Before Cumberbatch stepped into his britches, Turing's story was told in British playwright Hugh Whitemore's 1986 play, Breaking The Code. This dynamic show, which threads together different periods of Turing's life, comes to the stage as part of the Sydney Mardi Gras at New Theatre in Newtown.
When Whitemore wrote Breaking The Code, it was a time in England when Margaret Thatcher led an ultra conservative government, HIV/AIDS was devastating the LGBTQIA+ community, and skinhead culture was morphing into neo-Nazism. Despite this, the play received enthusiastic reviews, and in 1996 it was made into a BBC film for which Whitemore wrote the screenplay.
Whitemore, in fact, wrote many screenplays with much of his subject matter being historical and biographical, and there is something distinctly cinematic in the way he has devised Breaking The Code.
The story is divided into three eras of Turing’s life, and he is played respectively by three different actors. Ewan Peddley is the awkward, teenage Turing, still at school and besotted with his classmate, Christopher (Dallas Reedman). Harry Reid is an eccentric, animated 30-something Turing, in his element at Bletchley Park, trying to break the infamous Enigma code. Steve Corner is a more mature, sedate Turing who is still pitifully unaware of society’s protocols. The narrative is not told chronologically; it switches repeatedly to different time frames, comparing and juxtaposing the various aspects of Turing at different stages in his life.
Turing’s mother also transitions through time. Jess Vince-Moin plays the younger, naive Sara Turing, who doesn’t question Turing's unusually close friendship with Christopher. Leilani Loau is the older, wiser Mrs Turing, who is only mildly surprised when he comes out to her. Both have just the right amount of pathos, intimating motherly pain without descending into melodrama.
Veteran actor Martin Portus has some memorable scenes with Turing. Portus plays Dillwyn Knox, the manager at Bletchley Park and a seeming ally to Turing. Bridget Haberecht is Pat Green, another scientist working at Bletchley who, despite herself, falls in love with Turing.
Igor Bulanov is Ron Miller, the man with whom Turing has a casual fling which indirectly leads to his downfall. Jason Jefferies is detective Mick Ross, who ostensibly investigates a burglary reported by Turing, but rather doggedly uncovers the illicit relationship between Turing and Miller. John Grinston is the rather mysterious John Smith (the humour of this is acknowledged in the play) who lurks around in a raincoat, keeping an eye on things.
Director Anthony Skuse gives the dialogue its due, allowing scenes to unfold with the cadence of the spoken lines. He extracts nuanced depictions of Turing from each of the three actors, showing not just Turing at different ages, but exploring different aspects of the complicated man.
Scene transitions are accompanied by Naomi Belet singing phrases from Pet Shop Boys songs a capella. There is also occasionally a large projection on the right half of the back wall showing black and white, soft-focused video of a face or moving body. Whether these two devices (the singing and projection) contribute anything to the production is debatable, probably subjective.
There is some nudity on stage and this actually lends to the theme of candour, of the naturalness of sexuality and human emotion when it is not dressed up in dictated fashion of the day.
Overall, it is an engrossing, satisfying piece of theatre and a highlight in the Mardi Gras arts program.
Breaking The Code plays the New Theatre until March 5, 2022.