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Barrington Stage's 'Breaking the Code' tells little-known story of WWII genius

Mark H. Dold in a scene from "Breaking the Code"
Mark H. Dold in a scene from "Breaking the Code"
Kevin Sprague, Barrington Stage Compay

'Breaking the Code' at the Barrington Stage Company


Just over six months after he was posthumously pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II, Alan Turing, the cryptologist who led Britain’s successful efforts to crack the German’s Enigma code during World War II, turns up on the Mainstage of the Barrington Stage Company in the person of actor Mark H. Dold, who gives a remarkable and memorable performance as the brilliant but tragic code breaker in a revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1984 play, “Breaking the Code.”

Mark H. Dold, John Leonard Thompson and Philip Kerr in a scene from "Breaking the Code"
Kevin Sprague, Barrington Stage Company

As directed by Joe Calarco, just off of his shining production of “Kiss Me, Kate” for the company, the evening proved to be quite a revelation on several fronts. “Breaking the Code” can be a somewhat unwieldy play to stage, with its jumps back and forth through time, its references to the British secondary school system and the workings at Bletchley Park, the center of the country’s wartime code breaking efforts, and the eccentricities of the main character himself, who was a mathematical genius, essentially unapologetic about his homosexuality at a time when it was a strenuously prosecuted crime, and little patience for those who could not keep up with his intelligence.

Calarco and his cast, most notably Dold, have created a gripping production that manages to convey the major historical milestones of the Enigma project, as well as present a realistically comprehensive understanding of the man. Dold’s connection with the audience is absolutely electric, offering depth and encouraging sympathy for the figure who did the most for cracking the code and helping to defeat the German, but who would be convicted for homosexual activity in 1952 and eventually commit suicide by eating a cynanide laced apple in 1954.

Dold presents Turing at various phases of his life, from his time at a boarding school where he develops an intense relationship with a fellow student, Christopher Morcom, whose untimely death from bovine tuberculosis would haunt him for the rest of his life, through his efforts at Bletchley, where he would become close to a fellow cryptologist, Pat Green (representing the real life Joan Clarke), who despite Turing’s openness about being gay, was in love with him. Dold captures Turing’s determination and stubbornness, as well as the man’s excitement in achieving unprecedented results. He also provides a glimpse of the mathematician’s relationship with his mother, Sara, who was the hovering type, and with whom Turing could never share the extent and scope of his work.

Whitemore’s play and Calarco’s direction offer a sense of the stress in wartime London and what must have been the extraordinary efforts that went into defeating the Germans, not just with code breaking but on all fronts of the war. Calarco moves his actors to chairs on either side of the stage whenever they are not on stage, but their characters do obviously and silently react from time to time to some of the events actually occurring on stage, if they are somehow peripherally involved. It must be noted that Dold seldom if ever takes any of these seats as he is essentially on stage the entire time, which makes his towering performance even more of an accomplishment.

Brian Prather’s set, aided by lighting designer Chris Lee’s carefully timed cues, allows for quick changes in location, with just a minimal amount of scenery, say a wooden table or a few chairs dotting the slightly raked central wooden platform. Prather has also created two large transparent screens upon which changing algorithms and potential code solutions are written, which match similar markings at the edges of the proscenium. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes capture the wartime period quite evocatively and the actors’ accents, developed with vocal and dialect coach Wendy Waterman are quite impressive.

While the production must rest largely on the broad and able shoulders of Dold, who previously delivered a strong performance as C.S. Lewis in the BSC’s production of “Freud’s Last Session,” he is supported by some excellent actors, including Deborah Hedwall as his well-meaning but occasionally intrusive mother, and Mike Donovan who plays both his friend Morcom whose ghost hovers frequently around the stage and later as Nikos, a young man who Turing meets in Greece after he is essentially drummed out of government service for being homosexual. Annie Miesels manages to imbue Turing’s friend Pat with a mix of high intelligence and compassion as she supports Turing both professionally and personally, even as he experiences the fallout from his arrest, which includes medical intervention to reduce his sex drive.

Kyle Fabel plays the police detective Mike Ross with a hardnosed demeanor that later opens even into a sort of sympathy in a touching but nonetheless disturbing scene with Turing’s mother after her son’s death. Jefferson Farber in language and attitude is quite believable as Ron Miller, standing in for the historical Arnold Murray, a streetwise pick up, whose relationship with Turing inadvertently leads to those charges of “gross indecency.” Philip Kerr plays Bletchley mentor Dillwyn Knox with a fatherly touch that isn’t always successful in managing Turing’s eccentricities or impatience, while John Leonard Thompson plays a man named John Smith, who appears at the edges of the stage, perhaps conversing with Ross at times, whose mysterious identity as a representative of the British government is revealed close to the play’s end.

Whitemore amazingly crams in quite a bit of actual history into the play, which does cause it to drag a bit in certain later parts of the second act. But that doesn’t really matter because from the moment we see Dold stroll on stage with an apple in his hand, he commands our attention throughout. Dold seems to “get” Turing even more than Derek Jacobi seemed to in the original Broadway production back in 1986. Dold’s take on Turing offers an immediacy and an intimacy that really springs the character to life. He displays the mathematician's tentativeness quite expertly and makes the character's slight stutter sound completely natural.

Perhaps that is due to the fact that even in 1986, some 30 years after Turing’s death, we didn’t know everything about Turing’s career and perhaps because of the shame that still hung over aspects of his life and death. Back then, not even the British government was prepared to acknowledge the full span of his contributions, and even less so to address the really shabby way in which he was treated. Up until the actual pardon in 2013, prosecutors stressed that Turing knew what he was doing when he broke the law and therefore remained a criminal in the eyes of the government. It still remains hard to believe that the man who not only broke the Enigma code along with several others but developed essentially the first computer as part of this cryptological effort would not have enjoyed the protections of the country he served.

In subsequent years, it is good to know, there have been many honors showered upon the Turing name. There are schools named in his memory, roads named after him, prestigious scientific and mathematical awards that bear his name, at least three major biographies that each build upon the most recent revelations, as well as this play and several movies, including 2012’s “Codebreaker” and this Fall’s “The Imitation Game” which features Benjamin Cumberbatch as Turing. There’s even a statue of Turing, holding an apple, which was indeed one of his favorite foods, in his hometown by which the Olympic Torch was taken on its way to the London Summer Olympics.

For all the reading I have done on Turing over the years, Dold captures the man’s essence in a remarkably sensitive way. It serves as a tribute to the codebreaker in a way that surpasses his home country’s efforts to right their wrong.

“Breaking the Code” runs through August 2 at the Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413.236.8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org

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