‘Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Ravens, Hampstead Theatre, 2019
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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This drama about the 1972 clash between chess titans Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer is electrifying, if uneven

This is a play about chess. Lots of chess. But pretty much the only thing you don’t see anyone do is: play a game of chess.

In 1972, Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer met in Reykjavik for the Chess World Championship, otherwise known as ‘The Match of the Century’. Fischer’s potential win would end aeons of Soviet/Russian dominance in the sport and, as an American vs USSR confrontation, act as a sporting Cold War by proxy. 

Tom Morton-Smith’s play predominantly concentrates on the ‘everything else’ occurring outside of the matches themselves. What actually looms bigger than the international political backdrop is wunderkind Fischer’s deranged behaviour. His peculiarities are most disturbing when subtly presented, for example when Robert Emms is shown between matches furiously scraping pink ice cream from the bottom of a sundae dish, his infantile dessert pointedly positioned in opposition to the cold glass of white his ‘chess mother’ Lina Grumette (Buffy Davis) is sipping. 

For large amounts of the rest of it, he rages against anything and everything there is to rage against, from chairs to audiences to television cameras to his paranoid delusions about ‘Jewish conspiracies’. Fischer, it should be clear, isn’t depicted as a genius with a slightly eccentric streak, but as someone whose behaviour is fully unhinged (at one point, he spits in the face of an official during an argument over filming the match). 

In general, it’s fascinating territory to scrutinise – as indeed is the entire topic of the play – but it also feels like a bit ‘too much’ at points. It’s hard to decide why the American authorities, right up to Henry Kissinger, would be publically backing a man so clearly a massive liability, especially at a point of such tense political significance. 

Perhaps more importantly for the play, we almost completely lose sight of Spassky (Ronan Raftery) who for the most part is just the extremely polite, respectful opponent. 

There is, however, a whole lot to enjoy about Annabelle Comyn’s production. Using Jamie Vartan’s perfectly ‘70s greige set, it’s a slick and dynamic staging, augmented by clever video projection work and some really fun scenes, in particular, one at a bowling alley. The only problem is that it succumbs to the curse of The Big Match, wherein the sporting fixtures that should be the best are often oddly disengaging (cf the Champions League final 2019; Super Bowl 2019 etc). What should be a brilliant showdown never becomes quite as engaging as it could be. 

By: Rosemary Waugh

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