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Breaking the Code (11/15/1987 - 04/10/1988)


 

New York Daily News: "A Tale of Hearts & Minds"

Few things are harder to bring to life on the stage than adventures of the mind. It is a tribute to Hugh Whitemore that in "Breaking the Code," he has been able to make powerful, riveting drama from a man whose mind was the only place he felt entirely comfortable.

Whitemore's hero is Alan Turing, who invented the modern computer. Concerning the play's title, Turing was, in fact, a man who broke two codes. During World War II he broke the code the Germans used to direct their U-boats. After the war he broke the English social code by almost forcing the law to confront his homosexuality.

That one of the great minds of the century is virtually unknown outside of scientific circles suggests breaking the sexual code carried greater weight than helping win World War II.

What gives the play force is its emphasis on Turing's physical disabilities - his stammer, his awkward habit of biting his nails. Turing's body was, in more than sexual ways, his lifelong enemy.

Ultimately Turing could not bear the consequences of his actions, and at 43 he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple - a sardonic echo of Genesis and a poignant reminder of his fondness for Disney's "Snow White."

As Turing, Derek Jacobi makes great theatrical capital out of Turing's physical awkwardness. But he has a brashness, a bemused way of looking at us that conveys a man above mundane worries, who clearly believes the mind is immortal. Even the way Jacobi confronts the apple has grace, power and an indomitable fierceness.

His dynamic performance is complemented by a beautiful one from Michael Gough as his mentor. Jenny Agutter is lovely as the one woman with whom he felt close, Colm Meany gently comic as an inspector. Rachel Gurney is rather conventional as Turing's mother.

The witty set, in which Turing's world is wrapped up inside an early computer, adds a coldness to the evening, but the play - and Jacobi's performance - generate unmistakeable heat.


New York Daily News
11/16/1987

New York Post: "What he didn't compute"

Hugh Whitemore's intriguing "Breaking the Code," starring Derek Jacobi, which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater, is, in more than one sense, a play on words.

The title itself is intentionally ambivalent. Mr. Whitemore's hero is the brilliantly gifted British mathemetician Alan Turing, considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the modern computer.

However, Turing's most celebrated achievement was in leading the British team of code analysts during World War II that broke the diabolically difficult German "Enigma" Code, thus contributing mightily, it is said, to the Allied victory.

Yet Turing, and this was his personal tragedy, broke another code as well as "Enigma." This was the very English code of genteel conduct, that tacitly accepted homosexual behavior, even at a time it was illegal, just as long as it was tightly closeted, and preferably screened by a kind of companionship marriage.

It seems that Turing, through either hubristic arrogance or simplistic naivete, not only made no particular secret of his sexual inclinations, but actually revealed them to the police during the course of complaining about a petty burglary.

It was an admission that not only led to the effective downfall of his career - he was already being investigated as a security risk by the British Secret Service and, for he had had wartime contacts with Washington, the CIA - but eventually led to his death.

Whitemore has found himself a fascinating story to tell, and even more, in the strange, diffidently charismatic Turing, a nail-biting stammerer who could be a friend of Churchill one minute, and picking up a boy in a pub virtually the next, a stageworthy character of commanding interest.

The fall itself could perhaps have been endowed with something of the tragic folly surrounding the trials and fate of Oscar Wilde.

Yet with all going for a dramatic touchdown, Whitemore fumbles and drops the ball.

This really becomes a play on words, for the playwright's words - his individual speeches, carefully, sometimes brilliantly crafted scenes, and finely delineated characters - are fundamentally much better than the play itself.

For one thing, the play never ends - it stops. We see all the events leading up to Turing's fall, the damaging confession in the police station; his admission to his would-be girlfriend, by now happily married to someone else, of the effect of his conviction; even the hormone treatment he had to take to escape with probation.

But now Whitemore turns back and, as it were, looks helplessly at the audience. The real issue of the play - how the presumed subsequent persecution led Turing to abandon his work of genius and commit suicide, is glossed over as if it were an afterthought.

The awkward structure of "Breaking the Code," sometimes flashing back, sometimes forward, is kept in good shape by the director Clifford Williams, and the dauntless performers.

Through these vignettes we glimpse something of Turing's eccentric brilliance (to be honest it is his eccentricity rather than brilliance that is most in focus, but a lecture to schoolboys of his old school about computers is, for example, marvelously well done), and a little of the making of his character.

But Whitemore keeps on raising issues only to drop them, so Turing is seen in a strobe light - fitfully, at times excitingly, but always falsely.

The performances are exceptional. The part of Turing was written for Jacobi, and he is explosively good in it. By the time I first saw the play in London, earlier this year, Jacobi had left the cast, and his part was taken by a far lesser-known actor, John Castle, who was, ironically enough, I thought, better.

Jacobi sputters explosively, with some sentences swooshing under the stammer with convincing normality; it is a perfect case-book nervous stutter.

But Jacobi is an extraordinarily externalized actor with a tendency to overemphasize given any opportunity - which is why I much preferred his Broadway Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing" to his much-lauded Tony-winning performance in "Cyrano."

With his Turing, a little less would have been much more, and a model lesson in histrionic restraint was beside him on stage, with Michael Gough's wonderfully bumbling professorial head of the code research establishment.

This was comic acting in the grand style, more convincing than showy, more honest than clever.

The rest of the cast proved perfectly adequate, with Rachel Gurney as the mother quite outstanding. Her big scene with Jacobi, when she explains how she felt parting from him once as child, was done heartbreakingly well by both of them.

Jenny Argutter, as the woman who loved Turing but obviously lost, and Colm Meaney, as the Detective Sergeant who gently leads Turing to self-incrimination, are both convincing.

The total effect of the play is disappointing, yet scenes and episodes remain vividly in the memory, and many should warm to Jacobi's unquestionable bravura brilliance.


New York Post
11/16/1987

New York Times: "Stage: 'Breaking the Code'"

"Breaking the Code," the new London import at the Neil Simon Theater, is yet another English drama about a sensitive genius whose homosexuality leads to his crucifixion by the hypocritical establishment. But if Hugh Whitemore's flawed, discursive play shares many of the symptoms of its well-worn genre, it finally pulls away from the sentimentality of ''Another Country'' and ''Prick Up Your Ears'' and all the recent rest. ''Breaking the Code'' is a work about a gay martyr that moves the audience precisely because its protagonist, as presented by Mr. Whitemore and as beautifully acted by Derek Jacobi, never thinks of himself as a martyr. When the story of a badgered nonconformist is told as a tale of proud self-assertion rather than maudlin self-pity, one finds not a saintly victim, but a stirring hero, at center stage.

The hero, Alan Turing, is drawn from life (and from a biography by Andrew Hodges). A mathematician who pioneered in computer theory, Turing (1912-1954) was recruited by Churchill's Government to help crack the Nazis' Enigma code during the war. When we meet Turing in ''Breaking the Code,'' the war is over and his arrest for ''gross indecency'' is imminent. In the person of Mr. Jacobi, the mathematician looks, as he later describes himself, like ''an old poof.'' A man of about 40, Turing retains a King's College wardrobe, a boyish cut to his sandy hair and a strained, Peter Pan youthfulness about his large, dewy eyes. When he speaks, he stammers and chews absently on his nails.

The stammer is a Jacobi trademark dating back to ''I, Claudius,'' but before one can condemn the actor for dipping into a typically British bag of histrionic tricks (or tics), the pertinence of the performance to the role becomes gripping. This is not a pathetic ''old poof.'' Turing stutters because he is an intellectual whose words can never keep up with his ideas; his racing mind drags around the body and arrested social graces of an eternal student. When speaking about math, Mr. Jacobi's accelerating voice makes Turing's academic calling into a consuming erotic passion: the statement that ''Godel's theorem is the most beautiful thing I know'' arrives like an orgasm at the climax of a lengthy disquisition. Sex, by contrast, makes Turing sound like a detached theorist. Confessing his sexual preference to a female colleague (Jenny Agutter) who has fallen in love with him, Mr. Jacobi forthrightly, almost placidly, states, ''I am a homosexual.'' This matter-of-fact honesty makes the character honorable even as it leads to his doom in a bigoted era.

The crossed circuits of mind and body is one of many themes that waft through Mr. Whitemore's script. As the evening moves back and forth over a roughly 30-year period bracketed by the protagonist's public-school youth and his death, we see that Turing's obsession with the mind's ability to exist apart from a body dominates both his personal and scientific concerns. When he takes a lover in Greece, he would rather putter around with the inner workings of a radio than dance with his friend to the music played on the radio. In his postulation of a ''universal'' computing machine, Turing dreams of an electronic brain unencumbered by the needs and pains of the heart and the flesh.

As one expects from the author of the spy play ''Pack of Lies'' and the Alger Hiss television drama ''Concealed Enemies,'' Mr. Whitemore is also preoccupied by the state's ability to crush citizens for expedient ends: Turing's wartime code-breaking counts for nothing when he violates society's antediluvian social code. ''Breaking the Code'' further desires to explore the connections between science and morality. Is there a link between Turing's unabashed, unapologetic homosexual behavior and his courageous championing of a pure, abstract mathematics that does away with simple concepts of right and wrong?

To raise these fascinating questions, one must say, is not the same as delving into them. Mr. Whitemore remains a middlebrow, if upscale, television writer in that he sends an audience home with debating points to consider but with little substantive ammunition for deepening the discussion. He would rather quote or summarize relevant passages in Wittgenstein, Tolstoy and Bertrand Russell than take a striking stand of his own and follow it through to a challenging end. Such intellectual timidity, in turn, can lead to dramatic inertia. The supporting characters -whether Turing's angelic first public-school crush, or a no-nonsense detective or a proletarian hustler - are stereotypes who wander in and out (usually a niggardly one at a time) to serve as springboards for Mr. Jacobi's monologues. When Mr. Whitemore wishes to impart his themes, he clears the stage entirely so Turing can deliver an undisguised classroom lecture.

Though the play's talkiness, glibness and stubborn resistance to the grand dramatic gesture are readily apparent, they are sometimes countered by Clifford Williams's fluid, imaginative production. Liz da Costa's all-purpose set - a huge, cloud-backed hangar that might also be the imprisoning computer of Turing's worst nightmares - is more theatrical than the play. The mostly new and impeccable supporting cast is far superior to the one I saw in the West End last summer.

It is amazing to see how much the variously sunny and ashen Rachel Gurney makes of the cliched role of Turing's distant yet vivacious mother - seemingly the same woman who gave birth to every gay Cambridge University student seen on stage or screen for the past decade or so. (Dad, needless to say, is absent.) Even more impressive is Michael Gough as Dillwyn Knox, Turing's silver-haired, bespectacled, by-the-book wartime superior. Mr. Gough, like Michael Bryant and Michael Gambon, is one of those remarkable English character actors who should be much better known to American audiences. There is fine, supple Chekhovian detail to his every small gesture, from his slow-dawning owlish smiles to the buttoning of his ill-fitting tweed jacket to the revealing tentativeness with which he fingers through a personnel file.

With meatier roles, Mr. Gough, Ms. Gurney and Ms. Agutter, the putative female love interest, might well be as touching as the star. But there is plenty of Mr. Jacobi to fill the vacuum; he virtually never leaves the stage. Even when Turing's biography trails off into public ostracization, the hideous punishment of estrogen treatments and the contemplation of suicide, the actor continues to emphasize the mathematician's breathtaking explorer's vision over his cruel humiliation. The honest, restless bravery of Mr. Jacobi's performance seems the born artistic expression of a code breaker's iconoclastic soul.


New York Times
11/16/1987

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