How well can you condense Alan Turing’s life and work into one hour? Considering his technologically groundbreaking career, WWII code breaking and conviction for crimes of gross indecency, that’s a lot of source material for precious little time. Catrin Fflur Huws chooses to focus on the man behind the achievements at various pivotal points in his life for To Kill a Machine. From boarding school days to chemical castration shortly before his death, Huws shows the relationships rather than the events that shaped his life. Scenes of naturalism are interspersed with a surreal, presentational game show indicating the factors outside of Turing’s control that dictate his unfortunate fate at the hands of discrimination. Though stylistically dynamic, they are less compelling than the latter. Together, they make a good whole but with so much missing from Turing’s life, the highlights contained in To Kill a Machine shortchange the story of such an important man.
In the centre of a round platform, a wiry, mechanical tree by designer Cordielia Ashwell sprouts important mementos from Turing’s life: a photograph of Christopher, his first love at school, pages of indecipherable code, and the apple that he may or may not have used to kill himself. Its trunk is also a convenient place to store props and costume, but the visual aspect is the most dominant, and strikingly so. The symbol of life manifested in an everlasting, sculptural form against the items that were his downfall is powerful image.
The tree also dictates circular movements from the cast of four, most prominent in the game show scenes and Turing’s sex with his younger lover, Arnold Murray, who eventually betrays him – the moments where his life spirals irrevocably out of control. Alan’s eventual tethering to the tree via medical equipment during his “treatment” is a horrible, effective reminder of history’s handing of people discovered to be gay and sapping their life force with discriminatory legislation.
Gwydion Rhys as Alan Turing is the anchor in the cast, with a nuanced and sensitive performance that leaves Benedict Cumberbatch’s generic interpretation in the dust. He is complimented well by intimate scenes with François Pandolfo as his school friend Christopher, and older brother John giving him advice in the run up the trial. This latter scene is by far the best in the play.
Though the script is good, it’s short length is unsatisfying and otherwise dwarfed by the performances and design. The structure works as does the lens with which it views Turing’s life, but surely there is more than an hour’s worth of material on the man behind the life-changing mathematician and inventor.
To Kill A Machine runs through 23 April.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.