See Chess As A Cold War Proxy In Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer At Hampstead Theatre

Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer ★★★☆☆

By James FitzGerald Last edited 8 months ago

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See Chess As A Cold War Proxy In Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer At Hampstead Theatre Ravens: Spassky Vs Fischer 3
Photo: Manuel Harlan

A 1972 chess match sounds like unlikely fodder for a stage drama, but the World Championship of that year was no ordinary one. A pair of players from America and the Soviet Union met in a standoff seen as a proxy for the Cold War. Tom Morton-Smith's Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer paints intense psychological portraits of Boris and Bobby, the two political pawns in that contest. The Championship happened in Iceland, a midway point between the US and the USSR — and Jamie Vartan's drab, square-themed set cleverly blurs the line between sporting and diplomatic settings.

The focus is on Bobby Fischer (Robert Emms), a man whose conspiracy theories and anti-semitism made him a problematic hero even in his lifetime. His paranoia is laid bare in a multitude of testy scenes, directed by Annabelle Comyn, that see him arguing with officials about the minutiae of the game's setup: from the height of the table to the colours of the chessboard.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

While it's easy to discern Fischer's probable mental illness in Emms' shouting, seething and spitting performance, it's harder to appreciate the man's genius. There's not much insight into the actual chess games — which, despite the play's colossal length, are played out in a rush and without much tension. And because Spassky (Ronan Raftery) is painted as a comparatively meek and less complex personality, the supposed brilliance of Fischer's win is lessened.

The play is perhaps more interesting when trying to unify rather than divide its two star men — both lonely, and neither patriotic. But given that the fascinating geopolitical backdrop against which they do battle is only alluded to briefly, there is again a sense that the show, for its length, doesn't quite focus on making the right moves.

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer, Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, NW3 3EU, £18-37. Until 18 Jan 2020

Last Updated 12 December 2019