Review: ‘Breaking the Code’ at Theatre Rhino (****)

by Barry David Horwitz

(Rating: ****)

John Fisher as Alan Turing in Theatre Rhinoceros' production of "Breaking The Code" by Hugh Whitemore. Photo Credit: David Wilson.
John Fisher as Alan Turing in Theatre Rhinoceros’ production of “Breaking The Code” by Hugh Whitemore. Photo Credit: David Wilson.

(Theatre Rhinoceros’ “Breaking the Code: The Alan Turing Story” by Hugh Whitemore plays at the Eureka Theater, through March 21, 2015.)

Thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch in the academy award winning “Imitation Game” (best adapted screenplay), the story of British mathematical genius Alan Turing is now well known. Turing created the first modern computer in order to break Germany’s “Enigma Code” during World War II and was hounded to death for his homosexuality.

But when Hugh Whitemore first presented his play, “Breaking the Code: The Alan Turing Story,” in 1986 (starring the great Derek Jacobi in an acclaimed performance), Turing’s story was still in limbo.. I remember seeing a TV production of the play on PBS back in the 80s and wondering, “How come no one knows about Alan Turing?”

In 2012, Great Britain declared the Year of Alan Turing, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. He was issued a royal pardon and celebrated as the war hero who solved the Nazi Enigma code, shortening WWII by two years, and saving two million lives. He was forgiven for being gay 59 years after his death.

In the present revival at Theatre Rhinoceros, Artistic Director John Fisher (who also directs) turns in a brilliant and stylish performance as Turing, afflicted by a stammer and all the hatred of eccentricity that the post-war years could muster. Turing stands up for himself in a lovingly rendered Cambridge classroom beautifully designed by Jon Wai-keung Lowe with secret doors suggesting sexual and legal oppression. Surprising exits, entrances, and shifts of time add to the mystery, with each actor creating a sprightly and memorable character, parts of the clockwork machinery that surrounds Turing.

In 1954, at the age of 42, Alan Turing committed suicide, taking cyanide after undergoing court-ordered chemical castration because he confessed to being homosexual. He was tried for “gross indecency” and hounded to death — like his predecessor Oscar Wilde.

In Whitemore’s play, we see Turing and his mother, friends, and codebreaker colleagues exploring his difficult and awkward boyhood, scientific discoveries, probing mind, and rocky relationships. We see his friendship with the scientist and mathematician Pat Green, played by the witty and sensuous Kirsten Peacock, whose every movement is subtle, clear, and engaging — a mathematician in a dancer’s body.

Kirsten Peacock as Pat Green and John Fisher as Alan Turing. Photo Credit: David Wilson.
Kirsten Peacock as Pat Green and John Fisher as Alan Turing. Photo Credit: David Wilson.

The horror of Turing’s chemical castration is played down a bit, followed quickly by his suicide.  It’s heart-wrenching, it’s true, and it’s a lesson to stand beside Selma in our minds and imaginations.

Although he was clearly one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, Turing was barely tolerated by bureaucrats who could not put up with his truth-telling and his eccentricities. He just couldn’t keep himself from telling the damned truth — even to the police. Perhaps he reminds us now of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange? He could not stop breaking the code, even in his daily life. The play is an indictment of the conformist 50s that destroyed free thinkers everywhere. 

All of the actors are excellent. As Sara Turing, the mathematician’s mother who doesn’t quite get what all the fuss is about — math, codes, sex, coupling — Celia Maurice puts in a precise, witty performance. And Michael DeMartini excels as Inspector John Smith, a dour, saturnine, gloomy presence who enjoys twisting the knife in Turing’s heart while “doing his duty” for the British state.

Everyone should see “Breaking the Code” for the acting, the characterizations, the set, the sexiness, the unconventional style.

For further information, click here.

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“Breaking the Code: The Alan Turing Story” by Hugh Whitemore, based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, by Andrew Hodges, produced by Theatre Rhinoceros. Director: John Fisher. Scenic/Lighting Designer: Jon Wai-keung Lowe. Stage Manager/Sound Designer: Colin Johnson. Costume Designer: Lara Rempel. Assistant Directors: Colin Johnson, Kirsten Peacock. Dialect Coaches: Katina Letheule, Celia Maurice, Kirsten Peacock, Patrick Ross.

Alan Turing: John Fisher. Mick Ross: Patrick Ross. Christopher Morcom/Nikos: Heren Patel. Sara Turing: Celia Maurice. Ron Miller: Justin Lucas. John Smith: Michael DeMartini. Dillwyn Knox: Val Hendrickson. Pat Green: Kirsten Peacock.

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