On a black and white island sits Alan Turing (Gwydion Rhys), head in hands. Betray (Rick Yale), Friend (Francois Pandolfo) and Interrogator (Robert Harper) circle around him like sharks that smell blood. It seems as though all those in his life are ultimately waiting for his demise, preparing to tear him apart should he fail. This message pervades throughout the entire production; under Angharad Lee’s direction and Catrin Fflur Huws’s writing, the play jumps between snippets from Turing’s life and a gameshow called ‘Imitation’, in which the other actors attempt to identify whether the contestant is a man, woman or machine. At the centre of this competition is the ability to lie and deceive. But, as a man who has devoted his life to decoding the most sophisticated liar in the Second World War, can Turing programme himself to lie like Enigma? And if he does, will he be able to live with the consequence of conforming when his life is devoted to uncovering the truth?
The whole production has a sense of unease about it. Each actor jumps between different character traits with little difficulty and in doing so keeps the audience on edge. Whether it is Friend (Pandolfo) as Turing’s first love, closest colleague or brother; Interrogator (Harper) as the detective, judge and game show host; or Betray (Yale) as the reason for Turing’s capture and chemical castration, it isn’t difficult to sympathise with Turing’s (Rhys) confusion of the world around him. Even the few that want what is best for him are muddying the waters and contradicting his clear and rational yet equally conflicted mind. Is Turing trying to convince the Interrogator that he is a man and not a machine, or is he wrestling with the question himself?
The tree in the centre of the stage has its own part to play as well – as the focus of Cordelia Ashwell’s set design, its branches hold objects of pleasure and pain, flowers and thorns that cause Turing heartache in some form. The photo of his childhood friend and first love is tainted with the memory that Turing never admitted his feelings before it was too late; the seemingly healthy green apple is poisoned just like in his favourite childhood tale, Snow White. In playing Turing, Rhys is able to access all the logic that Turing possesses and convey that very sense of internal conflict that ultimately becomes his character’s demise. A brilliant academic, Rhys also effectively portrays the guilt that Turing feels in accepting his emotions and humanity, since these are aspects of his character that he cannot rationalise to society’s expectations.
The whole purpose of the play is to present dilemmas and conflict, to challenge the status quo and wrestle with the accepted pre-conceptions of the day. In doing this, the production is clear, concise and anything but confusing.
To Kill A Machine is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 23 April. For more information and future shows, see the King’s Head Theatre website. Photo: Keith Morris