Review: Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer at Hampstead Theatre
PUBLISHED: 10:51 06 December 2019
Clunky chess metaphors and antidramatic matches make this tale of the East West 70s world championships a long hard slog
We've had Chess the musical; now, here's Chess the play.
At the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, American challenger Bobby Fischer faces the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky - as their countries fight a Cold War proxy battle.
Both teams soon spiral into paranoia, while the tournament organisers wonder whether catering to the diva-like American is worth the trade-off of a TV broadcast and renewed interest in the game.
Playwright Tom Morton-Smith has clearly done his research, and there are timely ideas here: governments' use of soft power, cheating or tampering, a charismatic individual disrupting the system, and an attack on objective truth.
However, at an unwieldy near-three hours, this feels like material in search of a play.
The title is misleading, since we spend far more time with the flamboyantly obnoxious Fischer.
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Robert Emms gives a committed performance as he unravels, spewing antisemitic conspiracy theories (while denying his own Jewish heritage) and descending into a childlike state.
However, a little of Fischer goes a long way, and the same points are repeated: he needs to destroy his opponents, he has a confused hatred of communism linked to his mother, and he dislikes America. It's Fischer versus the world.
Spassky (beautifully played by Ronan Raftery) also dislikes the nation he purportedly represents, but his position is more interesting: being chess champion affords him the luxury of being an apolitical Soviet.
There's good support from Rebecca Scroggs as a wry Soviet minder, and Gary Shelford's Icelandic policeman.
However, the chess matches are confusing and antidramatic.
It's unclear how the tournament and scoring works, or how their playing styles compare.
Annabella Comyn's production is most engaging when the tale descends into farce - Jamie Vartan's set collapsing in on itself as the tournament organisers are forced to search light fixtures for sabotage devices.
But overall, there are too many clunky chess metaphors, rather than allowing us to connect to the characters and reach our own conclusions.