Pumpernick Bandersnatch and co. may be hoovering up the gongs (or at least the noms) for their Imitation Game, but whether or not you consider it a bit of a straightwash, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Celebration of a life through exaggeration of its subject’s oddity and isolation, through tense silences and long nights slaving in moody machine sheds. Enter Snoo Wilson, and Matthew Parker’s brilliant and batshit debut in-house production at The Hope Theatre. Lovesong of the Electric Bear is an Alan Turing biopic by way of an Ursine It’s a Wonderful Life. A pinball machine of flashing lights, grinding gears and outbursts of joy, misery, lust and passion.
We first encounter Turing as the apple falls from his dying hand, a suicide at a painfully young age, his life publically shamed and chemically straight-jacketed by an establishment bereft of compassion and gratitude. He’s awoken from death by his long-loved bear Porgy, who takes him on a magical trip back through his lifetime. We see Turing the plodding schoolboy transform into the academic prodigy, Turing the Kings College Fellow emerge into the spy and codebreaker, we see his first sexual flutterings blossom into troubled and eventually dangerous relationships.
The tone veers between dream-like and barking mad, Wilson playing moments of great national crisis for broad comedy and quieter personal scenes with a quiet and relaxed sensitivity. School days are a romp of caricatures that halt suddenly with the death of a close friend, Bletchley goes by as a whirring backdrop to Turing’s failed relationship with Joan Clarke. We’re never allowed to forget how momentous Turing’s achievements were, or how capacious his intelligence, but Lovesong has nothing that harps or brags, and none of the agonising attempts to visualise ‘genius’ that dog so many film and television portrayals of the brilliant. Turing is a man, first of all, being led through good and bad days by his fluff and stuffing Virgil.
If Wilson’s text is a phantasmagoria of oddity and charm, Parker’s production matches it step for step. Playful in the extreme and played out at a whirring pace, characters and scenes fly by with relentless energy and visual inventiveness. There’s no attempt to tame the play’s absurdities, or to file off its rough and strange edges, and it’s all to Lovesong’s advantage.
It’s all enhanced by a superb design from Zoe Hurwitz which places the audience inside a machine of light-bulbs, ladders, wiring and chalked formulae. It feels as incomprehensible yet tactile as one of Turing’s computers, clanking, whirring and glowing all around.
There are some great performances too, particularly from Ian Hallard as Turing – affable and eager to please in his social life, single-minded and graceless when absorbed in a problem. Hallard’s Turing is notable mostly for his vulnerability, rather than his strength, and as bravely as those around him try to create a protective barrier, it’s inevitable that eventually one of the world’s illogical cruelties will land a blow. There’s also strong work from Laura Harling as Joan and a variety of other paramours male and female, and from Bryan Pilkington as the hulking bear Porgy.
Wilson has been unfairly neglected in recent years, his name all but falling off the role-call of 20th century greats, and Lovesong, one of his final plays, is as good a reminder as any of how unjust this is. It’s considerably flawed, being too long by a good half hour and trying (and frequently failing) to explain complex mathematical concepts via the medium of a jovial bear. But what is so remarkable about it, for all its peculiarities and flights of fancy, is how clearly Turing is drawn by it, and how much of his life is sketched in. Played as light as air, it’s also a portrait of some considerable depth and humanity.
Defying categories, reason and good taste, transforming the dusty stuff of mathematics and biography into a parade of colour and fantasy, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is the biopic Turing deserved, and this is a European premiere that is in every sense worthy of it.