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The Theatreguide.London Review

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer
Hampstead Theatre    Winter 2019-2020

This promising but disappointing new play by Tom Morton-Smith tells us too little historically and shows us too little dramatically, so that there is a real danger of leaving it no richer in knowledge or experience than you were coming in.

In 1972 American chess master Bobby Fischer and Russian champion Boris Spassky played a tournament in Iceland. Ordinarily this would have been of little interest to any outside the chess world.

But it was the Cold War, and both the US and USSR decided to make the competition a symbol and surrogate for the battle for world supremacy – having one man beat another at a board game would be proof of – and a harbinger of – one system's essential superiority over the other.

(The match, and the political activity around it, was the inspiration for the Rice-ABBA musical Chess.)

The problem with Morton-Smith's play is that many in the audience will come in knowing that much, and the rest can read it all in the programme notes before the show. And the same is true of the personalities of those involved.

You will either vaguely remember or read in the programme that Spassky was a plodding and methodical player who just happened to be very very good at the game, while Fischer was a neurotic, paranoid, just-this-side-of-certifiable nutcase who just happened to be very very good at the game.

And that's what the play shows us. As Fischer, Robert Emms has the showier role, behaving like a total diva, bouncing around the stage with manic energy, tossing furniture and chessboards about, and generally being a mass of tics and twitches.

To establish the contrast, director Annabelle Comyn has Ronan Raftery play Spassky as so calm, businesslike and buttoned-down that he hardly seems to be there at all.

There are no insights or nuances to either character, beyond a matched pair of speeches in which each tells essentially the same story of discovering chess as a young child as a refuge from an unhappy real life.

Neither does the play offer us any insight into the psychology or even methodology of chess. The actual games are seen only in mime, except for one striking sequence that speeds up time so that each man goes through a game's worth of squirms and fidgets in a minute, that moment giving a greater sense of the pressure and tension of the match than anything else in the play.

It would have been nice if playwright, director and actors had been able to give some sense of the allure of the game, or have someone explain what was happening.

At one point we are told that Fischer started one game appearing to be playing the 'King's Indian opening' but switched to 'Modern Benoni,' disconcerting Spassky sufficiently to break his concentration and cost him the game. It surely would have helped to tell us what any of that meant or, at least, what it is about chess that makes a move like that so affect an opponent.

Without much to tell us about history or show us about the main characters, the play must look past them, to each player's entourage of chess coaches and political minders. And even here thee isn't much news or insight.

Everyone on both sides is paranoid that their man might lose and therefore their own cushy lives as hangers-on might be threatened. Everyone assumes the worst of the other side while doing their worst to foil the other side. And all of this is boring history-book Cold War cliché.

(The title refers to an Icelandic folk tale similar to the idea of canaries in a coal mine, the ravens indicating what is to come for the culture. But of course the Spassky-Fischer match, despite all the efforts of the propagandists, turned out to be no indicator of anything.)

The one character the play does offer a little fresh light on, and even sympathy for, is the head of the Chess Federation, who knows that the politics is all a distraction and that Bobby Fischer in particular is a total pain in the neck, but realizes that the combination has brought more publicity and money to chess than it has ever had before and must therefore somehow be put up with.

If you know absolutely nothing about the historical event or the persons involved, and if you don't look at the programme before the show, and if you are pre-inclined to find chess interesting, and if you are satisfied by the sketchiest of characterisations, you may find Ravens holding your attention.

Oh, and although it ultimately didn't really matter much, Fischer won on points.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Ravens - Hampstead Theatre 2019