Breaking the Code

 by Hugh Whitemore

Performance by Fourthwall on 28th February 2006 at The Wharf Theatre, Tavistock.

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What a cracking production of Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the Code by Fourthwall.  A strong cast have once again met their objective to present ‘challenging and thought-provoking work’ within the community.

On reading Alan Turing’s obituary in the Times in June 1954, one would have been left oblivious to much of the substance of this fascinating play about the last 26 years of his life.  Yes, he provided the theoretical concepts for the modern computer (the notional Turing Machine) and the basis of artificial intelligence.  But how did he come by an OBE in 1946?  For ‘wartime services to the Foreign Office’ goes the rather obscure citation.  This was modest recognition to avoid thrusting too much attention on Turing, at a time when much had to remain secret for so long.  The 40-year rule ensured that he remained little known outside academic circles until the secrets of Enigma and Bletchley Park could be made public.  Secrecy prevailed till long after his death, yet few individuals can have contributed so much during World War II, or saved so many lives.  A colleague wrote “I won’t say that what Turing did made us win the war, but I daresay we might have lost it without him.”  For reasons of security and propriety, little mention of his wartime achievements was possible, or the homosexuality that led to his death. 

Turing’s achievements had been in breaking the Enigma code, along with ‘a motley collection of mathematicians, linguists and chess grandmasters’, helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic against the German U-boats.  Once the battle was won Turing was diverted (December 1941) to the problem of speech encryption; some of this work remains secret to this day.  After the war Turing was involved in the development of early computers, before going on to look for mathematical solutions to biological problems, of the kind hinted at in the play by his interest in the patterns made by fir cones.  His last scientific paper in 1952 gives an answer to the question posed by Rudyard Kipling in his Just so Stories on ‘How the leopard got his spots’, which are in their way just as intractable as those posed by the cryptographers of the Third Reich.

The play by Hugh Whitemore is based on Alan Hodge’s biography Alan Turing, The Enigma (still in print).  Whitemore’s aim was to explore the way in which Turing failed to reconcile his homosexuality with intellectual life.  The play revolves around the last 26 years in Turing’ life, ending in his premature death aged 41, a convicted homosexual, who died by his own hand; a tragic consequence of society’s inability in the 1950s to accept homosexuality without resorting to the blunt instrument of the law.

Phil Rayner takes much of the credit in directing this excellent production in which Peter Dann heads a strong cast.  Rayner also plays Turing’s boss Dillwyn Knox at Bletchley in a way that seems just right for the times; intelligent yet slightly vague, with cultivated understatement. 

Peter Dann plays an utterly convincing Turing; awkward, diffident and stuttering when young, later confident and in command with his wartime achievements and academic accolades behind him.  His was a fine performance that reached its climax in his address on Speech Day at Sherborne School, where he had been a pupil.  It was written with subject matter and metaphor tuned to teenage boys, but delivered by Peter Dann with such surety and conviction that I felt back at school. And what a speech; unfolding a far-sighted comparison of the growing capabilities of computers with the power of the human brain (likened to porridge!).   Turing speculated on how long it might be before computers would be capable of the subtleties of human thought.  He was in little doubt that computers would be able to think, and he devised a simple test (the Turing Test).  A machine capable of human intelligence can be interrogated by a human being, with responses indistinguishable from another human.  The whole play depended on Peter Dann’s credibility as Turing, and he did not disappoint.  His performance is a tour de force!

The way in which the problem that deciphering Enigma code presented was set out in a briefing for Turing by Pat Green, played by Kath Harvey.  It was just enough for the audience to appreciate the scale of the problem that confronted Turing and his colleagues, deftly put over in a way that did not risk losing the audience.

Nic Early as Ron Millar plays Turing’s lover, who precipitates the chain of events that lead to Turing’s own admission of his own sexuality to the police.  Nic Early and Peter Dann’s portrayal of the relationship is utterly convincing, making the contrast between the boorish petty thief, and the na´ve academic.

Detective Sergeant Mick Ross is well played by John Lawrey, the persistent policeman.  Clive Lovatt brings authority to the role of John Smith, a senior civil servant with concern that the enquiry might create embarrassment for the Foreign Office.

Meg Morris plays Turing’s mother, providing the emotional climax to the play when Alan admits to her that he is a homosexual.  For the first and last time in the play she takes her son in her arms.  Meg Morris shows us how, even in those less demonstrative times, a mother’s love is unconditional.

Gareth Jeffries captures the gauche enthusiasm of a boarding school boy as Turing’s school friend Christopher Morcom.  Alex Bishop was composed and convincing in the difficult part of Turing’s Greek lover, Nikos.  

For me the play offset the disappointment of Robert Harris’s book Enigma (and the film of the same name derived from it) that chose to use fictitious characters rather than basing them on the people actually involved.  Now, thanks in part to the Hodge biography, Whitemore’s play and Fourthwall, Turing’s life and achievements are no longer seen in the distorted way given at the time of his death.