Review: Breaking the Code (Royal Exchange)

Robert Hastie directs Hugh Whitemore’s play about the genius mathematician

We don’t often think of mathematics as beautiful. Beauty tends to be seen as belonging to art; maths and science are practical, logical disciplines. For Alan Turing, though – at least as we see him in Hugh Whitemore’s biographical play – the problems he works on are first and foremost gorgeous, shimmering enigmas.

Whitemore’s play, based on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, is at its best when it shows the father of computer science utterly absorbed in his work. In dizzying monologues, he explains his vision of an "electronic brain", or why "right" and "wrong" are not mathematical absolutes. One word keeps punctuating his theoretical rhapsodies: beautiful.

These monologues break out of scenes that shuttle backwards and forwards in Turing’s life, capturing key moments. Shaken out of chronological order, we see his intense schoolboy friendship with Christopher Morcom, his wartime years code-breaking at Bletchley Park, his arrest for gross indecency in 1952 and the affair that led to it. Throughout, Turing struggles with the warring forces of restrictive social expectations (and, in the case of his then illegal homosexuality, actual laws) and his own overwhelming need to be authentic to who he is.

Daniel Rigby fleshes out the role brilliantly, his performance impressively spanning the quarter century or so contained within the play. There’s an awkwardness to his characterisation – never overstated – that melts away when he becomes immersed in the intricacies of mathematics. Spine lengthening and voice quickening, Rigby’s Turing is suddenly a performer, excitedly explaining his discoveries to the audience.

The inherent theatricality of these moments is skilfully teased out by Robert Hastie‘s direction and heightened by the elegant design of moving, flickering bars of light (Ben Stones and Richard Howell), suggestive of firing synapses and electronic connections. Elsewhere, though, the drama can feel a bit plodding. Perhaps this is true to the nature of problem-solving and code-breaking, which as Turing himself notes requires hard work and persistence. But we’re never made to feel the thrill and urgency of the work at Bletchley as Turing retrospectively describes it. Instead we – like the machines Turing designed – just have a lot of information to process.

A lot has changed since Whitemore’s play was first performed in 1986. For a start, computing has evolved almost beyond recognition, casting a very different light on Turing’s wishes for a "universal machine". We now carry in our pockets devices with computing power that was unimaginable in the 1980s. With robots gaining in complexity, meanwhile, Turing’s seemingly fantastical speculations about artificial intelligence are increasingly pressing questions.

But understanding of Turing himself – now a well-known name – has also developed in those 30 years. The film The Imitation Game, itself based on Hodges’ biography, is still fresh in the memory for many, while recent Parliamentary debate about a posthumous pardons law has put Turing’s name back in the news. We now know a lot more about Turing, his achievements and his appalling treatment by the law.

There’s less, then, that Breaking the Code has to tell us today. Turing remains a fascinating figure, but his story is beginning to feel well worn. And its telling here lacks the verve and brilliance of the man himself. While the time-hopping script requires a bit of decoding, its basic formal tricks are simpler than the narrative structure of many popular TV shows. It’s interesting, sure, but it falls short of that quality that Turing so celebrated: beauty.

Breaking the Code runs at the Manchester Royal Exchange until 19 November