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
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
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
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
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.)
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
Oh, and although it ultimately didn't really matter much, Fischer won on points.
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Review - Ravens - Hampstead Theatre 2019