Marcus Reeves talks to Judith Paris about her role as Sara Turing in The Universal Machine, a new musical about the life of Alan Turing.
I first met Judith Paris when she auditioned for my show Postcards from God – The Sister Wendy Musical half a decade ago and from that moment on. Her dramatic presence, unending curiosity and immense understanding of character – both theatrical and human – thrilled and enthralled me. In an exceptional career that includes training with the Royal Ballet School, seasons with the RSC, eleven years at the National Theatre, Broadway shows, numerous films with Ken Russell alongside several successful plays and one woman shows she has written herself, Judith has shown a mastery of her craft. Yet her new role as Alan Turing’s mother in the New Diorama Theatre’s musical The Universal Machine has set her a new challenge, in being part of a ‘devised’ theatre process.
“I’m finding it absolutely fascinating, but it’s very hard, because you’ve got a room full of very creative people, all with wonderful ideas. What I admire about the director David Byrne is that you can go to him with all kinds of ideas and he will look at them very honestly and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – and that’s wonderful. Largely things are not like that in the theatre because you have a text and the text is usually sacred – especially if it’s a living author. Living authors very often hang around in rehearsals and get very upset if a comma is dropped!”
But this frustration with meddling writers is not just an actor’s frustration with the omnipresent eyeball that scribblers and scrawlers sometimes come to represent. One of Judith’s most recent projects was a no-holds barred one-woman show she wrote and performed taking Madame Tussaud as its subject. Judith compares the creation of The Universal Machine with her own writing process.
“As a writer you spend hours and hours and hours and hours of your life agonising over exactly the right word, especially if you’re writing a script, because you’ve not only got the exposition of the story but you’ve got to get the speech rhythms right and you don’t want bloody actors coming along and paraphrasing. I do tend to write in a linear way, chronologically, which in The Universal Machine David doesn’t do – he’s wonderfully free with time; we’re leaping backwards and forwards all over the place, but with Madame Tussaud I started at the beginning and finished at the end. It was such an extraordinary story, it had to be that way.”
Based on Tussaud’s own memoirs, in Waxing Lyrical Judith explored the idea that in documenting our lives we are always creating our own version of events – a waxwork model that is usually constructed from both fact and fiction, with unsightly warts and wrinkles smoothed aside and a new, more interesting costume fitted to whatever needs our egos may have at the time:
“Madame T was the Alistair Campbell of her day really, the first great spin-doctor. She embellished the truth with a fantasy life of her own and lied like hell!”
In The Universal Machine, Judith has been creating an altogether different portrait of another formidable woman.
“My character is Sara Ethel Turing and I’m lucky enough to have a book that she wrote. For an actress trying to create a character it’s wonderful. After Alan Turing’s death she refused to believe that he’d committed suicide, she would not have it. As he’d lived his entire life in physical chaos, she convinced herself he was doing experiments with cyanide at the time and his house in Manchester was a complete tip – she maintains that he got cyanide on some implement or another and then buttered his bread or cut into an apple and killed himself accidentally. Apparently he’d gone off that morning and bought himself a pair of socks.”
Not necessarily the last actions of someone planning to do himself or herself in. However much we may hold Turing up as a gay hero posthumously, Judith is in no doubt that his incarceration and punishment by chemical castration (after carelessly letting police know of his sexual behaviour whilst reporting a robbery) meant that officials were all to ready to cast him aside immediately after his death.
“The coroner just whitewashed it and said ‘of course it’s cyanide – the cadaver smelt of bitter almonds’ – but they didn’t do analysis of the stomach, it was forensically appalling. I think the coroner had made up his mind that’s what it was and to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, with the attitude that the man was a homosexual and they didn’t want to bother about people like that. I think the attitude was appalling then, absolutely dreadful. There’s no doubt about it that things would have been conducted very, very differently today if someone were found with that amount of cyanide in their system. It could have been in the atmosphere and he breathed it in whilst in his kitchen doing an experiment. He was always covered in mud or oil – he wasn’t a precise scientist, he lived in mess. There’s also a conspiracy theory too, because he was an eminent mathematician and had conversations and relationships all over the world with hugely important foreign mathematicians and was in the government’s service at Bletchley Park and had signed the official secrets act. Was he a risk?”
The Universal Machine explores these themes but has a lot of ground to cover in ninety minutes, fleshing out Turing’s life story around the core of his story – how he spearheaded the work breaking the codes generated by German Enigma machines, a vital part in the history of the Second World War. Judith is part of a cast of seven, led by Richard Delaney as Turing, who Judith describes as “absolutely perfect for the part”.
Dom Brennan of electro rock band Night Engine has written the music for the piece. In videos online he comes across as a very measured man who seems to know a lot about sound and machines, a perfect marriage for a musical theatre piece about a unique mind. Having trod the boards in her fair share of musicals good and bad, Judith is impressed by the sound and staging:
“There’s a massive amount of light projection going on – we’re doing it on a bare stage so it should sound and look extraordinary. I just hope the audience will follow the chronological leaps we make.”
Although Judith may be anxious on behalf of her audience, time travel is something she is familiar with, having encountered Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor in the classic BBC show Doctor Who. As a part time Whovian I greeted this piece of Judith’s story with glee. She played Eldrad, a crystalline nemesis that the doctor first finds in gamine female form, before he shows his true identity as a rather heftier monolithic male villain. Painted a fetching shade of lavender in a crystal-clad cat suit, Paris looked like a prototype of both Lady Gaga and Wicked’s green queen Elphaba.
“It was a complete all in one body-stocking, very high heeled boots, this Egyptian-type head piece, with rock crystals stuck all over. I was stitched into it, I couldn’t move, couldn’t go to the loo, couldn’t drink because I was in it for the day – and they put my voice through a machine to make it sound very strange. It was a lovely part to play because I played the little girl lost to start with and I turned out to be really extremely evil!”
Leaving her further flung moments in time and space aside and returning to the production opening this week, Judith is certain that The Universal Machine is more than simply mechanical.
“It’s so complicated, the story of the Enigma – and it is a wonderful story of Turing’s tenacity, but also wilful, ridiculous stupidity by the British Government. Not many people would decide to do a musical about a mathematician, because there was so much theory and musicals by their very definition need an emotional existence. The emotional fields we have found are the relationship between Alan and his mother (which was a strange one) and the relationship he had with Christopher Morcom at Sherborne, which was probably hero worship, but he adored him and it was a huge tragedy when he died of tuberculosis at only nineteen. They were both going up to Cambridge together, they were going to conquer the world, intellectually, together. They were two incredibly bright boys and I think Alan probably spent the rest of his life trying to find Christopher and I don’t think he ever recovered emotionally. He did get engaged, briefly, to a mathematician, who was very unusual at Bletchley Park, because women were not meant to be mathematicians, so she was called a ‘linguist’. But he couldn’t go through with it. She knew he was gay and she was quite prepared for the companionship that was the front that people adopted in those days – you found a companion who didn’t care much about a sex life and just loved the person and left the sex out of it – but he couldn’t do that.”
Not all musicals are a riot of jazz hands, tits and teeth. The last ten years in particular have seen the traditional musical format morph into a mixture of ‘music theatre’ and ‘plays with songs’. I’m sure The Universal Machine will be in this latter camp and look forward to an experimental and thoroughly modern production. Judith offers her take on this:
“Why I’m interested in it is because it’s new. You can’t go on doing reprises, digging around forever in the bowels for lost musicals. The world must move on and with electronic music and sound effects and light effects being so exciting now, let’s go for it.”
New Diorama Theatre’s production of The Universal Machine is now booking. Click here to visit their website for more information and to book tickets.
Production images from The Universal Machine © Richard Davenport