Saturday 14 December 2019

Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer

Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer
Hampstead Theatre, London
5 & 6 December 2019
Ravens landed on the same week as the London Chess Classic; impeccable timing.

There have not been many serious plays or films about chess. Chess - The Musical remains famous, of course; I enjoyed seeing that at the London Coliseum in April 2018. This new play offers much that is enjoyable but the experience is tempered by the presence of some notable flaws.

Ravens tells part of the story of the infamous 1972 World Championship match between Boris Spassky, the defending champion, and Bobby Fischer. The basic premise is very well known: Spassky, despite the backing of the mighty Soviet Union, could not prevent lone wolf Fischer from taking his title in crushing style. Even with a defaulted game in his favour - giving him a 2-0 lead after the first two games - Spassky could not contain the extraordinary Fischer and won just one more game in the match, while losing seven along the way to a 12.5-8.5 defeat.

Ravens refers to the tale of Norseman Hrafna-Floki, who set sail in search of Iceland and released three ravens to seek out land. Fischer is referred to as a raven; 'Where you go, the world is going to follow.'

The Cold War aspects made the 1972 match controversial enough and more headlines were made by Fischer’s uncommon behaviour and (often outrageous) demands. Chess - The Musical delved a little into the life stories of the two protagonists but brought in lots of elements from elsewhere too. Life snippets of Korchnoi were brought into the mixture, for example.

Ravens focuses purely on the big match and brought in other characters connected with its real-life counterpart. The script took some liberties with the real version of events but the cornerstones were all present and correct.

The problem with making additions is that the Fischer story is already so remarkable and eccentric that any extra attempts to add oddities will also run the risk of over-egging the pudding. Thus the utilisation of blind casting created unnecessary amounts of tension on the suspension of disbelief, stretching things almost to breaking point in some cases.

Fischer - of all people - emerges as one of the most believable characters. Robert Emms' impression - and impressionistic portrayal - was a favourable one. Fischer, all lanky energy, demanding the first two rows of spectators be moved back or removed completely. Fischer, the perfectionist, repeatedly asking for the lights to brought up and down while he ascertains the perfect level. As the play progresses his mental frailty becomes evermore marked, as he hides from people, voices, noises...and reality. Only being at the chess board brings him a kind of piece.

The other character to retain a noticeable semblance to reality is that of Max Euwe, the gentleman FIDE President who is steadily growing more world-weary by ever minute spent in the flush of Fischer fever.

Other interpretations of the key players are variable. It is strange to present an authentic Fischer and have a Spassky with a beard. In the 2014 film, Pawn Sacrifice, Liev Schreiber's Spassky was an authentic interpretation but I didn't think Tobey Maguire captured Fischer particularly well. It appears a good mix is hard to find.

We also have women unconvincingly playing men, a thin black persons portraying a strange version of Fischer’s associate Father William Lombardy (white and portly, in reality) and, in Spassky’s camp, an unrecognisable duo of Geller and Nei who don't look or sound at all like the originals. To non-chess aficionados such matters will have no significance, but a play about Fischer and Spassky will automatically draw the attention of chess fans, who are not likely to let such discrepancies proceed unscathed.

Blind casting may have admirable intentions but I have never seen it used convincingly. The nadir, in my experience, was watching a new version of a famous play in which the most important plot point is the reveal that two central characters are twins, who had been separated at birth. Casting one black and one white actor was never going to be convincing and it acted only to the detriment of the play.

Splitting hairs, we can point out a couple of chess discrepancies in the programme too. The match is referred to as a 'tournament' in the first question of the interview with writer Tom Morton-Smith and the page giving the results of the games omits game 21 and describes a game as a 'match'. Running the text via a chess expert would have rooted out such slips.

Something strange happened on the press night (the first of my two visits to the Hampstead Theatre. A mentally distraught Fischer fell flat on his back from a standing position. The actors immediately left the stage and the play was suspended for a few minutes. A staff member came out to apologise but once the play recommenced it was as though nothing unusual had occurred. The fall did not happen the following evening though.

Ravens is definitely worth seeing, but allowances certainly need to be made. The faults can be fixed to ground the material in a firmer reality. As things stand, the constant flickering between truth and fiction leaves everything as confused as Fischer's own mind.

Meanwhile, blurring the lines between fiction and reality even further, 'Fischer' and 'Spassky' appeared at the London Chess Classic to make ceremonial opening moves.

The play continues at the Hampstead Theatre until 18 January 2020. Further information and tickets can be obtained here.

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