It is painfully ironic, or perhaps just painfully familiar, that not two weeks out from the kick-off of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the Australian government was debating whether or not to legalise discriminating against trans people in schools. It was a pertinent, if backwards, reminder of the way LGBTQIA+ people’s lives are violently shaped by systemic oppression and unfeeling legislation. Breaking the Code demonstrates how very little can protect someone from legalised bigotry.
Director Anthony Skuse saw Breaking the Code, a biographical script about the life of British mathematician Alan Turing, as about more than a single man but encompassing a community of people who learned to live as fully as possible under the indecency laws of the UK from the late 19th century well into the middle of the 20th. Hugh Whitemore’s script was written in 1986, during another awful era for LGBTQIA+ people, while the UK was still in the middle of the HIV/AIDS crisis. As such, while Breaking the Code follows Alan Turing’s many mathematical and technological achievements, the focus on his relationships and the constant threat of persecution reflected the tense, surveilled experience of thousands of people like him.
The script was in three interwoven parts across Alan’s school days, his time working on the Enigma Code, and in the 1950s when he was prosecuted for homosexual acts and sentenced to chemical castration. During key conversations, characters from past and future timelines chimed in with unheard reflections or provocations to indicate the transformative power of time; how feelings and perspectives can change when given the space to. This structuring gave the narrative a cyclic, meandering quality which was meditative as well as confronting to consider what would eventually become of the young Alan, but also of the ways the surrounding societal attitudes would change and stay the same.
The staging with set designed by Skuse, featured a raised wooden floor around which the actors not in the scene wandered, sat, and watched. The fluidity of movement was also captured in the video clips, designed by Patrick Phillips, of leaves waving in the wind and bodies slipping through ocean waves projected on the back wall overtop Alan’s smudged white chalk cloud. The production design was reserved and subtle but sophisticated and demonstrated a careful consideration of tone and atmosphere that greatly informed the performances. Particularly in the closing moments, after Alan’s death, watching a young man simply swimming in the sun with such a palpable sense of freedom was deeply moving.
Under Skuse’s direction, the performances were authentic and touching, especially in the quieter, tender moments between Alan and the men in his life. Schoolboy Alan, played by Ewan Peddley, had a tightly wound potential that softened in innocent understanding with his schoolmate Chris (Dallas Reedman). This was mirrored in the later timeline of Alan (Steve Corner) and the lover that undid him Ron (Igor Bulanov), a dynamic that demonstrated Alan’s more understated side, glimpses of a happiness that could have been. The middle years of Alan (Harry Reid) in his 20s were more complicated for the many different expectations he hoped to fill: his mother’s (Leilani Loau) fears about his eccentricities, the pressure to marry his coworker Pat (Bridget Haberecht), and the subtle life lessons of his boss and mentor Dilwynn Knox (Martin Portus). But Reid’s balance of Alan’s abrasive personality was deftly handled and resulted in a sympathetic characterisation. All three Alans were impressive for their vulnerability and the sense they gave to their shared character as a man growing and changing through time.
The history, and current day reality, of persecution of LGBTQIA+ people globally is brutal and violent and overt but Breaking the Code turns a light on the insidious damage that the more polite forms of bigotry does to a person and a community. The threats to Alan Turing were the will of a civilised, gentlemanly government but the feeling of invasion and danger saturated this production.
Breaking the Code is running at New Theatre from February 11th – March 5th as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
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