The liar’s paradox is central to Freddy Syborn’s play about the life of Alan Turing. Syborn paints the mathematician and cryptanalyst as a man who was at ease in a world of binary systems but altogether less comfortable with human variables, the fallibility of the flesh.
There are other paradoxes at work in Syborn’s intelligent play. Turing was a homosexual, but one of his most intimate relationships was with a female colleague, Joan Clarke, a co-worker at Bletchley Park’s Hut 8 where they cracked the Enigma messages together. He was drawn to her in many ways, intellectually and emotionally, but could not love her. The necessary connection, the physical heat, was not there and he could not bring himself to pretend otherwise. According to Syborn his true love was Christopher, a school friend who was aware of Turing’s feelings but unable to reciprocate, later dying of TB: Turing’s tragedy was that he could not be with the person he loved and did not want to be with the person who loved him.
Turing is played by Harriet Green and she does a good job of suggesting the man’s social awkwardness – stooping slightly, avoiding eye contact, face occasionally lighting up at some mathematical concept – and his quiet awareness of never quite fitting in. It’s an intriguing and successful use of cross-gender casting (and, as such, worth comparing to The Economist in which Zoey Dawson plays Anders Breivik). By casting Green the production manages to speak about Turing’s sexuality – and the weight of social expectation to conform, to slot himself into a particular box – without shouting; she ensures that whether Turing is bunking off PE with Ollie Smith’s Christopher or finally admitting his sexuality to Amani Zardoe’s Joan, it’s the emotional dynamic between the characters that comes across most strongly: gender is secondary to Turing’s inability to live a life he deems dishonest.
Turing died at the age of 41 following an arrest for gross indecency – after which he was ordered to undergo hormone treatment (a side effect of which was the acquisition of female secondary sexual characteristics, wait gain and breast growth) – suicide was strongly suspected and a poisoned apple was found beside his body: a gift of an image to a playwright, but Syborn resists the urge to overly exploit it; it’s one detail of many, part of a layered character portrait.
Syborn’s play covers a lot of biographical ground, sliding back in time to Turing’s boyhood, his schooldays, while dwelling on his work at Bletchley Park in slightly less detail. The production is rather hurried in its handling of the relationship with Joan, and Turing’s work, his legacy, takes something of backseat to his emotional life; at one point a puppet is used to represent Turing as a young boy, but this device is quickly dropped. But while the play doesn’t quite feel complete as it is, Syborn’s is clearly a young writer with a reaching, intelligent starfishy kind of mind; his writing is full of elegantly recurring motifs and, with a bit of buffing, this feels like a play that could grow and stretch and develop and become something pretty amazing.