Hope Theatre’s new Alan Turing play is no imitation game

Love Song of the Electric Bear. Picture: Scott Rylander

Love Song of the Electric Bear. Picture: Scott Rylander - Credit: Archant

Actor Ian Hallard tells Alex Bellotti why he’s not out to ape Benedict Cumberbatch in his latest role.

In recent years, the stars have aligned to shine a light on the life of Alan Turing. Two years ago, he was granted a posthumous royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality. Then came Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of the code-breaker in The Imitation Game, with the 75th anniversary of his Nazi-busting work on the Enigma machine at Bletchley Park following last September.

All of this may make the Hope Theatre’s latest show, Lovesong of the Electric Bear, sound most cannily-timed, but Snoo Wilson’s biographical drama was actually written 10 years ago, before the playwright’s death in 2013. Telling the story of Turing’s early life, success, conviction and tragic suicide, it stars Islington actor Ian Hallard, who is keen to show audiences a different side of the iconic scientist.

“You can get bogged down in this idea that he was just this tortured genius,” says the 40-year-old, “and actually he was a far more three dimensional person than that.

“With The Imitation Game – not only does it have a narrower scope in terms of the story it tells, but also in terms of his characterisation. Obviously they chose to tell the story of him as this computer-like genius who was very autistic and couldn’t really get on with anyone. That wasn’t really, from the research you read about him, what he was like.”

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Indeed, anyone expecting a stage version of The Imitation Game is going to feel slightly baffled – not least because one of the most prominent characters is a teddy bear from Turing’s childhood.

Wilson’s penchant for magic realism is apparent throughout, but as much as it portrays the horrific lows of Turing’s life – including his cruel chemical castration to supposedly cure him of his sexual desires – it is also a celebration of the highs, featuring more comic moments such as his trip to a New York drag show.

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For Hallard, who is married to the actor and writer Mark Gatiss, researching the role has left a deep impression.

“There are echoes of Alan Turing through my life and I think for any ‘out’ gay man’s life. I volunteer for London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, who are based in Islington, and the database that we use to house all the information that we refer people to is called the Turing Network.

“Just doing research about him is very interesting. If he had lived, his biographer, Andrew Hodges, feels very strongly that he would have been a campaigner for gay rights and gay liberation as, unusually for the time, he wasn’t really in the closet too much. He did tell people about his sexuality and he was almost brazen about it at times, which was of course part of the thing that got him into trouble with the police and led to him getting prosecuted in the first place.”

While Hallard expresses regret that the “visionary” Wilson is not around to see the show himself, he says his family has been very involved and supportive of the production, with his widow Anne particularly adding her own suggestions during its development.

Ultimately, he hopes it will add up to an evening which is as theatrically rich as it is informative.

“I don’t think you can avoid coming away feeling compassion, empathy and desperation for what (Turing) underwent and if you’re gay, or if you’ve got gay friends, thinking how recently this actually all happened.

“But what I hope people take away is what they would from any piece of theatre – make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em think. Obviously people will take away lots of different things from it about him, and hopefully it educates about his life, but also the best theatre makes you think about modern life and what’s going on around us now. So ideally it will do all those things if we’re doing our job right!”

Lovesong of the Electric Bear runs at the Hope Theatre until March 21. Visit thehopetheatre.com. See opposite for our review.

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