As prestige movies open pell-mell in the next few weeks, and Oscar campaigns already underway blaze into full public awareness, one of the contenders will surely be The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. It tells the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who is widely credited with breaking the Nazi’s “Enigma” code and whose name is regularly invoked in discussions of artificial intelligence, specifically over how or whether we might one day create a machine whose thoughts are indistinguishable from those of a human.
As with any major film, especially one with Oscar hopes, there will be a near-avalanche of stories about the film: its director, its stars, its writer – and the man who inspired it. I don’t want to give much away for those unfamiliar with the tale, but Turing’s life truly encompassed World War II intrigue, intellectual triumph, reprehensible bias, persecution and injustice, and great tragedy. There’s going to be a cottage industry of stories on Turing – paeans, revisionist history, alternative views, and so on, right up through Oscar night.
For many, this may be their first encounter with the Turing story and they’ll be drawn in by the considerable glamour and talent of Cumberbatch and Knightley (I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m going solely on the advance word and promotion). There’s a cautionary part of the story that’s well worth being told many times over.
But for theatregoers with moderately long memories (I count myself among them), The Imitation Game will come as something less than a revelation historically, because the West End and Broadway beat the movies to the punch almost 30 years ago, with Derek Jacobi as Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking The Code. Like The Imitation Game, it was based on Andrew Hodges’s book Alan Turing: The Enigma.
Breaking The Code played for six months in New York 1987-88, following on the heels of Jacobi’s triumphant performances in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s repertory of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing (both opposite Sinead Cusack); I was fortunate enough to have seen all three, and it cemented my deep admiration for Jacobi as one of the finest actors of his generation. As for the play, while I long believed that it was Jacobi who truly made the experience remarkable, and unrepeatable, I saw the show years later at the Berkshire Theatre Festival with Jamey Sheridan in the Turing role, and to my surprise I was once again fascinated and deeply moved.
Now of course vastly more people see most movies than see a play, but as Imitation Game launches, I was thrilled to discover that Jacobi’s performance has been preserved, in a 1996 BBC adaptation of the play by Hugh Whitemore, available online in its entirety.
While it is an adaptation, not simply a film of the play, the TV version will give us a chance to see two portrayals of one man by two superb actors, refracted through the views of different writers and directors – and societal growth and change regarding LGBTQ life and rights – at an interval of 30 years.