When I first heard that Breaking the Code was coming to Manchester it was one of the first times that my excitement had been equalled by curiosity. A play that followed the life of Alan Turing, the British and Mancunian innovative genius who’s name unfortunately was only made more apparent to my generation through the recent blockbuster, The Imitation Game. It was this recent rise to popularity amongst younger audiences which had me curiously pondering the nature of the play. Considering as I am yet to read ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’, the Andrew Hodge novel of which playwright Hugh Whitemore based the play on, I felt that I was left completely in the cold regarding what to expect and that I should prepare myself for even the most radical of shows. Would Whitemore milk the successes of The Imitation Game by mirroring its style on the stage? How would lead-actor Daniel Rigby approach such a prestigious role considering varied portrayals of the legendary code-cracker? And would this finally be a chance to get to understand the man, rather than the machine?
The performance of course, answered all of my questions way before the show had finished. Immediately it was clear to see from Rigby’s body language and use of stammer that this was a reflection of the internal struggles of Alan Turing, rather than a glorified personification of his code-breaking methodology. Before the show I had my doubts as to whether Rigby would be the right man to carry the role in the leading manner that Turing had been portrayed as having in previous biographies. However, when I saw the light in which Whitemore had chose to portray Turing, I realised that Rigby was paramount in helping to smash down perceptions of the man. The cut-throat, demanding code-breaker did not exist on this stage. What we had was a softened and compassionately naive man with an inability to lie. In fact, Whitemore, Rigby and the play’s director, Robert Hastie completely strayed away from the image of an archetypal British war genius and replaced it with the notion of a sensitive and exploited man struggling to deal with the reality of autism.
Through Rigby, we were able to see the life of Alan Turing in a unique and eye-opening light. The most unique difference is the play’s emphasis on the fact that most of Turing’s greatest challenges in life are, in fact, Internal and not external as may have been perceived. Turing’s inability to lie ultimately, becomes his downfall, therefore emphasising the fact that Rigby was playing him as somewhat of a tragic hero, his poor judgement inevitably lead to his demise. Whitemore’s depiction is a vulnerable one, and one which Rigby almost allows the audience to exploit. The use of the audience seems help heighten Turing’s nerves and autism. At some points it almost seems as if the audience’s eyes penetrate Rigby’s thin protective bubble of comfort. Initially some would dismiss this as poor acting; alas I feel this is Hastie’s way of representing autism onstage. The way a normal, social interaction in fact feels like a thousand judging eyes are descending down upon you could be argued as being represented here. I couldn’t help but feel that stage designer Ben Stones was echoing this idea with his fascinating set up. The hypnotic beams of light were the four walls of the stage, however they acted merely as slim borders, borders of which the eye could easily penetrate and invade the lives of those inside. The invasive nature of the staging really helped to magnify the entrapment which is so frequently associated with autism.
The staging is another example of the breaking of perceptions. Its futuristic beams seem to represent machines and their ever changing nature. If looked at in this sense, we can see how machines are the walls of Turing’s life and its puts his struggle into perspective, the real problem is not the machine, but the man inside struggling to cope. This magnifies the problems of a man trapped by his own internal struggle, a struggle in which his inner conflict is the real code that needs breaking. Whitemore’s writing ensures that this is a puzzle which aims to decipher man, rather than machine.
Breaking the Code is showing at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 19th of November. Box Office 0161 883 9833