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By Tiffany Bowman
The Royal Exchange Theatre have revived Hugh Whitemore’s 1987 biographical drama, Breaking the Code. This powerful play explores the life of Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke the complex Enigma code during the Second World War and who, sadly, was later persecuted for being a homosexual.
Since Turing’s suicide in 1954 there have been several plays, novels and films depicting his life and work – most recently The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch – so it was interesting to see how the Royal Exchange Theatre would tell his story.
This production places most of its focus on Turing’s private life and later work. The play tackles various themes and questions and places particular emphasis on Turing’s sexuality. It challenges the notion of national identity and whether we have a duty to put the interests of the majority over our own. A standout moment is when Turing discovers the Fibonacci sequence exists within the design of a pine cone and declares that God must be a mathematician. The play is full of light-hearted moments such as this. It struck a perfect balance between tragedy and comedy. However, the final scene in which Turing takes his life using a cyanide-laced apple reminds us that the life of Alan Turing was far too short.
Daniel Rigby is engaging as Alan Turing. His stammering speech and awkward demeanour makes the character endearing. Whenever he delivers a monologue concerning mathematics, the character really comes to life as he quickens his speech and adapts a wider range of body movements. Rigby does real justice to Turing and it is fantastic to watch him bring the mathematician to life onstage. The supporting cast are also brilliant, especially Phil Cheadle as the investigating detective (ironically named John Smith.) Despite his role, he is enigmatic and charming and the scenes between him and Rigby are particularly good. Geraldine Alexander is also noteworthy as Turing’s mother, Sara. She portrays a conflicted but committed mother, making her very likable. The cast are all fantastic, taking on the personas of those closest to Turing with great sensitivity.
Scene transitions are marked through use of an electronic cube made from LED strip lights which move depending on the location. This emphasized the idea of Turing having to contain his true self and was a great visual for the workings of Turing’s mind.
Overall, this was a successful revival of the play. There is an accompanying exhibition in the theatre’s Education Lounge with interactive code-breaking activities and displays to encourage younger audience members to engage with Turing’s life and work.
Breaking the Code plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 19th November. For tickets, visit the theatre website.
Tiffany Bowman is a writer and theatre maker based in Greater Manchester. So far, her work has appeared in the Royal Exchange Theatre, Three Minute Theatre, Contact Theatre, and Swan Street Studios. Follow her on Twitter @TiffanyZBowman