To Kill a Machine – King’s Head Theatre, Islington, London
Written by Catrin Fflur Huws
Directed by Angharad Lee
To Kill a Machine looks at the overlooked personal life of the famous code breaker, unfolding through key moments of Turing’s life, looking at the more human side of his work and breakthroughs before leading to the darker days of his prosecution for homosexuality. All this is interspersed with flashy energetic scenes at a game show called “The Imitation Game” where the characters from the play are put through their paces.
Throughout, the writing shines through, both naturalistic and entertaining whilst also giving off-hand philosophical statements that leave you pondering on the bus home. The writer, Catrin Fflur Huws, has crafted an interesting piece that examines the person behind the legend, presented fully formed and not afraid to delve into the pain that surrounded Turing’s later life, using a few carefully selected characters to display his complex relationships. At first the play felt like it took a bit of time to warm up as it ticked off the boxes, for example cracking the enigma code, but the characters and relationships are always the focus.
For the duration of the show I was transfixed by Gwydion Rhys’ intense, balanced performance of Alan Turing, through a quick succession of scenes you can easily see where he is focused and excited to suddenly exhausted. Gwydion’s portrayal also feels hugely respectful as he gives Turing little tics based on his autism whilst never forgoing the emotion and heart that lies in the character. Francois Pandolfo provides a sensitive and charming companion for Turing, playing friends, colleagues and brothers with a warm passion, leaving me happy that there were people that obviously cared for Turing. Robert Harper and Rick Yale predominantly play the cheesy and sickly game show hosts giving me the sense of unease I only usually reserve for Pennywise the clown. They also play the government characters that manipulated, bullied and incarcerated Turing with a chilling determination. At times I was left a bit confused as to what characters were being played as the actors portrayed similar parts without clear physical or character changes, (sometimes left to be explained by repeatedly saying the characters name), and also meant I grew to dislike Yale and Harper given they never had likeable qualities during the play.
To Kill a Machine feels very slick thanks to Angharad Lee’s direction, not once skipping a beat. The sudden way the game show smashed into the story combined with the delicate character moments between scenes mean the show never loses your focus, whilst not feeling rushed. Lee has managed to present Turing’s heart, rather than mind, as the focal point and never forgets this. This was allowed to flourish thanks to the minimal design, a beautiful skeletal tree that the production rotated around, off which hung little trinkets: academic papers, photo of Turing’s first love and an Apple. The sound was also sparing but important, allowing an appropriate backdrop to focus on the drama. This was all lit in striking manner highlighting key objects and figures, but sometimes left me struggling to see what was happening .
As I left and on the journey home the play stuck with me, thinking about how towards the end of his life, after providing a solution that helped the war, his life became so hard due to the prosecution for being homosexual. I was left shocked at how barbaric his treatment was. The piece excels at looking the heart of this issue showing that a brilliant man ended up in a lot of pain due to his natural feelings, bringing up similar issues to that of Albert Camus’ The Outsider. Not only is this an interesting story in which to look at it but also a good time to look at it as it, showing that even though there are people who can be clever, popular etc. they can still suffer persecution from those that do not agree with factors such as sexuality. Whilst we are fortunate for homosexuality not to be illegal there are still cases of people receiving ridicule for it, and places in the world where it is illegal and treated horrifically; this play feels like a reminder that there is still a way to go, and sometimes sorry isn’t enough.
To Kill a Machine is an intelligent play that never goes over your head by looking at the heart of Alan Turing, something often overshadowed by his work. Performances, design, direction and writing all work together to allow the audience to take Alan’s hand and feel his successes as well as the struggle that eventually broke him. Never has such a unique and important story been told about a well know figure that allows us to actually know them.
© Daniel Ramsden – 2016 – @DanielRamsdenFL