Play Reading in English - The Imitation Game by Ian McEwan


HK English Speaking Union
  • Mon 20-02-2017 7:15 PM - 2 h

Colette Artbar

Free admission


This month for our play-reading we turn our attention to a rather different kind of play, namely a television play. First broadcast in 1980 and written by the well-known Booker-prize-winning British novelist Ian McEwan, the play did not get the attention it deserved at the time. Having competed his first novel, McEwan was commissioned to write it for the BBC Play for Today series, and it was directed by then up-and-coming director Richard Eyre, today a major name in theatre directing for NT and other companies. Unlike the 2014 film ‘The Imitation Game’’ based on Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing, the play focuses on one of the women who worked in the man’s world of Bletchley Park, the code-breaking centre where British Intelligence was working to crack the inscrutable Enigma Code in which signals and plans were transmitted by the Nazis. McEwan described his motivation for writing the play in a well-written introduction to the script.



“Initially I wanted to write a play about Alan Turing, the brilliant young mathematician who was brought to Bletchley Park from Cambridge during the war to work on Ultra, the decipherment of the German Enigma codes. He was one of the founding fathers of modern computers. He was a homosexual and suffered for it at the hands of the law. He died in 1953 in circumstances so far not completely explained. And by this time certain other facts about Bletchley Park were interesting me more. By the end of the war ten thousand people were working in and around Bletchley. The great majority of them were women doing vital but repetitive jobs working the ‘bombes’ – electro-mechanical computing machines (Turing was a major force in their development) which were fed ‘menus’ and ran through thousands of combinations of letters until a code was broken. The ‘need to know’ rule meant that the women knew as much as was necessary to do their jobs, which was very little. As far as I could discover, there were virtually no women in at the centre of the Ultra secret. There was a widely held view at the beginning of the war that women could not keep secrets. Secrecy and power go hand in hand. Traditionally, women had been specifically excluded, by clearly stated rules written by men, from government, higher education, the professions, trade guilds, the priesthood and from inherited property: in effect, until recent times, from citizenship. And yet women seemed somehow essential to the conduct of war. Their moral and emotional commitment was vital, for they were the living embodiment of what the men fought to protect from the Enemy.”


McEwan’s “Imitation Game” protagonist Cathy Raine is portrayed as a highly intelligent and capable woman who wants to employ her abilities to further the war effort, but whose wish to be treated as an equal is thwarted. This dramatic portrait is strongly at odds with Keira Knightly’s somewhat glossy portrayal of Joan Clarke, who worked with Turing and others. The voices of real women who contributed at Bletchley Park have been suppressed, supposedly for national security reasons. McEwan’s play gives us an insight into the gender discrimination they would actually have faced, and is far more thought-provoking than the movie version, which was timed to benefit from the hypocritical and patronising Royal Pardon granted retrospectively to Turing in 2013. 


Facilitators: Mike Ingham and Julian Quail

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