THEATRE REVIEW: To Kill A Machine, King’s Head Theatre

running until 23 April

Alan Turing’s extraordinary life, from war-changing genius to broken convict, was of course brought to life in the guise of a certain blockbuster film in 2014. It’s hard not to think of, or indeed mention, the film when this play’s script includes scenes from a dark game show with the word “imitation” distributed liberally through the dialogue. However, here the comparisons end: this is an unusual take on the story, flitting as it does between the episodes in Turing’s life and the game-show scenarios. While some elements are more successful than others, overall it is a powerful look at this mistreated hero, and at what it means to be human in a world where freedom of choice is limited.

Photo © Keith Morris
Photo © Keith Morris

As Turing, Gwydion Rhys is alternately amusing in his sideways look at the world, and heart-breakingly vulnerable. While in the early stages his mannerisms feel a little overdone, coming across as rather fey, he settles into the role, and as the character matures so does the performance. It is a rounded portrayal that is at points full of certainty, as he explains mathematical problems to his closest friend, and at others completely at sea.

At the centre of the small, circular stage is a tree, bringing shadows of so many different symbolisms: growth, the natural world, Cavalry, knowledge, disobedience, reaching new heights, branching out… In To Kill A Machine, from the off it carries objects reflecting significant times in Turing’s life – the apple (poisoned, like in his childhood favourite Snow White?); a photograph of his first friend (and lover?) Christopher; chemicals; calculators; the tools of the chemical castration, which we know he will eventually suffer. While the stage inevitably feels a little crowded at times, Cordelia Ashwell’s design keeps us focused with these details.

Gwydio Rhys and Francois Panolfo © Keith Morris
Gwydion Rhys and Francois Pandolfo © Keith Morris

Robert Harper and Rick Yale play ‘Interrogator’ and ‘Betray’ respectively, leading us through the game-show scenes. These moments are doubtless the weakest in the production, not down to Harper and Yale (who excel in other roles throughout the show) but down to a script that isn’t funny, dark or ironic enough to create a strong foundation for this (perhaps intentionally?) rather awkward conceit. More powerful are the scenes that look at Turing’s life not through a lens, but openly and truthfully, revealing his forcefully conflicting emotions. Here Rhys is well supported by the rest of the cast: Yale is disarming as the cheeky charmer with a bad streak who ultimately leads to Turing’s fall from grace; François Pandolfo is sincere and sympathetic as, alternately, Turing’s close friend, colleague and sympathetic yet frustrated brother; and Harper excels in his repertoire of pompous roles with authority.

While there are some wobbles along the way, the wider questions posed by playwright Catrin Fflur Huws (what makes a man? What makes a machine?) are married intelligently with this biographical work. It is an intriguing adaptation of what is suddenly (for film buffs, at least) a familiar tale, told with delicacy and originality.

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