Interview with Nick Palmer, director of ‘Breaking the Code’

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Pip:  What drew you toward directing Breaking the Code?

Nick: First of all I think it’s a great play – a very interesting play in the way that it’s done. It flows very easily between the scenes; there’s no sense in which they end or begin, although there are different time periods and different settings. It’s more about the flow of Alan Turing’s life. It’s also very relevant at the moment in a society where we are talking more about equality and about gay rights and people are pushing for gay people to be accepted in a way they haven’t been up until now. The play is an important piece that shows someone can be amazing and yet still receive persecution and be denigrated just for who they want to go to bed with, which is ridiculous. The play makes that point very powerfully. Unlike The Imitation Game it focusses on the relationships with Turing’s family, with his lovers, with the authorities who want to stop him being gay. It makes a good social point. My previous play was The Cagebirds which I took a feminist interpretation of, this one is about gay rights, so the next one will be a play about race issues obviously!

Pip: It’s not a one set simple play, it’s much more abstract. Did you come up with ideas about this first or find them during rehearsal?

Nick: I established with the actors, the technical team, the designer Mat Nunn that the concept was everything which takes place in the play is happening in Turing’s head before he commits suicide. The last scene of the play is him committing suicide – spoiler alert – so we begin with a tableau in which all the actors are on stage, then it moves into the first scene as a transition. I started with that concept which means that the space is fluid and variable. There are only two tables and a couple of chairs. The idea is that Turing could recall details of settings etc. if he wanted to but that isn’t what is important – it’s the details of the memory and emotions which are important. Some lines which a more straight biographical play would take as “This is what happened” have taken on a deeper meaning of “Is this what happened?” or “This is how Turing remembers it.” There’s only one scene in which Turing doesn’t appear which is set after he died – we have a really different spin on that scene, where’s he’s not even present but he’s clearly imaging this scene rather than it just happening.

Pip: You mentioned The Imitation Game which lots of people will be familiar with. Is it fair to say the film is more about breaking Enigma while the play takes in many more things?

Nick: They are both taken from the same source material which is Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma. The Imitation Game very much focusses on the breaking of the Enigma Code. The focus of the play is Turing’s relationships. There are scenes set at Bletchley Park but there isn’t a lot about what he does there. They talk about what work he will do but we don’t see him building the machine or anything like that. The play is really about the human relationships he has rather than his physical work.

Pip: I found it odd that The Imitation Game refers only obliquely to The Turing Test despite that being perhaps the thing he is most famous for.

Nick: Yes he is the father of computer science in many ways. A lot of what he did was theoretical until he broke the Enigma Code. The machine that he theorised, that he talked about, didn’t exist. It couldn’t be built, it was a thought experiment, until he went on to build what became a Universal Machine – which is essentially what we now call computers. I don’t think The Imitation Game is a bad film, its emphasis is just elsewhere. The play puts the emphasis on him and his relationship with human beings. The one thing people know about Alan Turing is that he did great work and since the papers have been released from his secret work even more so. I think it’s important to talk about his relationships. The point that the play makes is about the relationships and how he is treated because of them rather than his government work. Really it doesn’t matter what he did; whether he’s a hero or not. What happened to him is disgusting and immoral and wrong and that’s the point the play gives to the audience.

Pip: People will be familiar with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Turing and the play was originally a starring role for Derek Jacobi. What were you looking for in your leading man?

Nick: It’s always difficult casting such a massive part, and one which is based on a real person. One of the things which Paul has done is a lot of research. We’ve tried to ignore the Cumberbatch version; there are perhaps shades of Jacobi. We watched the filmed version of the play, but we have broken with that, done our own research. Paul has been great to work with.

Pip: Are there any actual recordings of Turing?

Nick: No. There are transcripts of discussions he participated in at Manchester University and he was on the radio a few times for the BBC but the programmes weren’t recorded, as was policy then. We haven’t worried about being completely accurate as the play is partially fictionalised – names have been changed and obviously the drama is heightened. It’s not an exact record. We know Turing had a stutter so we have brought that in but Paul has created a voice which is very distinct from his own and which shifts with the different time periods.

Pip: Is Paul playing a “different character” is those scenes?

Nick: He is remembering himself at that age. He is “stepping into” those memories rather than being himself at that age.

Pip: What are your influences as a director?

Nick: I don’t know that I have many stage influences. One of my favourite directors in film is Richard Ayoade and I like the way he has taken elements of other classic filmmakers that I’m not as well versed in like Kubrick. The idea of symbolism, symmetry and that idea of creating a landscape and a soundscape and a visual that isn’t necessarily the most important thing but plays an important role in the theatrical experience.

Pip: For people coming to see the play, how would you categorise it? Is it a tragedy?

Nick: I would call it an historical drama. It is more a tragedy than a comedy although there are funny moments and characters. It is deeply about Turing’s vulnerability and the persecution and the hurt he suffered. There’s a real sense of remembrance and sentimentality and the beauty of life as well as a lot of darkness. A kind of chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and dark.

If you’re interested in history you will be interested in this play. It is relevant to a lot of people because it happened in their lifetime. He died in 1954; he is within living memory. It’s only very recently that the age of consent has been equalised for homosexuality. There are interesting social issues. It’s drama. It’s tragedy. It will be an interesting watch. There’s something for everyone.

Pip Nixon

Breaking the Code runs between 19th-24th October 2015