Preview: Spassky Vs Fischer at Hampstead Theatre

Ronan Raftery as Boris Spassky and Robert Emms as Bobby Fischer in Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer at Ham

Ronan Raftery as Boris Spassky and Robert Emms as Bobby Fischer in Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Archant

Cold war tensions erupt as a chess game becomes a proxy battle between east and west ideology in Tom Morton-Smith’s psychological thriller

The Cold War chess face-off between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer is dramatised in the world premiere of Tom Morton-Smith's psychological thriller at Hampstead Theatre. Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer takes audiences back to Reykjavik, 1972 when global media attention on the 'match of the century' sparked a proxy battle of differing political ideologies. Ronan Raftery, whose screen work spans The Rook, Fresh Meat and Fantastic Beasts, takes the role of the Russian world chess champ squaring up to the American, played by His Dark Materials and Chernobyl actor Robert Emms.

Q How much did you play chess before this role and how have you prepared to play a World Chess champ?

A I knew nothing about chess beyond how the pieces move, so the first thing I did was create an online chess account and start playing. I still get routinely hammered by Ukrainian teenagers! It's been great learning more about the game, and apart from beginning to really love it, it's been incredibly useful for the show.

Q How will the production make such a cerebral game dramatically interesting?

A We are attempting to show all 21 games of chess between Spassky and Fischer without actually playing them out - marking them physically or musically. So having a better understanding of the game and what goes on as one player dominates or capitulates has been fascinating. (Director) Annabelle Comyn has a very clear vision as to as to how we dramatise it, using music, choreography, audiovisual cues, silence, 20 chessboards and few other curveballs.

Q It's set during the cold war, a fascinating time of East/West tension and yet we are still talking about Russian poisonings and interference in elections.

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Does the play resonate in that way?

A Absolutely, Tom's writing feels like an energetic response to those sort of tensions, without ever beating us over the head with it. Much like the cold war itself, a lot of what is being fought over remains unsaid. While it's undoubtedly a political play, the primary focus is on the characters, how they operate and adapt to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the game they love above all else.

Q What are the challenges of playing Spassky and what challenges does he encounter? A Although he's the lesser known of the two, Spassky is a fascinating guy. He adored chess but hated being at the political centre of this global proxy war. The stress of representing the Soviet Union really unsettled him, not least because of the enormous pressure exerted on him from Moscow. He later described his years as world champion as the unhappiest time of his life. On the surface, he was a very even, level headed man, successfully burying his anxieties beneath an exterior of professional calm. So remaining true to that while allowing the audience to glimpse his inner turmoil is a fascinating challenge which I'm enjoying.

Q You have worked on a variety of projects from comedy to big budget movies and theatre, do you have a favourite job type and what brings you back to theatre?

A I don't have a favourite genre or medium, I'm attracted to good writing and brave directors. I've been pretty lucky to have worked with great scripts and directors in the past few years and this show is very much in keeping with that! I'm always wondering about the greener grass on the other side, so I've been dying to get back on stage in recent years, and once this show ends I'm sure I'll be itching to get in front of a camera.

Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer runs November 29 to Jan 18 at Hampstead Theatre.