2015 might just go down as the year I fell in love with jazz drumming. It started with Birdman: the nerve-shredding soundtrack that hounded Michael Keaton’s washed-up movie star, its rhythms seeming to build to a climax that never quite arrived. Then there was Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s unexpectedly edge-of-the-seat succession of beats and drum solos and slow-mo droplets of sweat and blood crashing onto cymbals. And now 64 Squares, the latest show from Rhum and Clay, adds percussion to chess playing, transforming cold logic into gripping drama.
For protagonist B, life is a series of choices – moves like those on a chess board, each irrevocably altering the final outcome. The show takes us into B’s troubled psyche, a place ruled over by the four fragmented parts of his personality: performers Julian Spooner, Matthew Wells and Róisín O’Mahony and drummer Fred McLaren. They apologise for the mess. We join them as they sift through B’s memories, gathering together all the pieces and trying to work out which move followed which. Where was the choice that brought B here, to the final moments of his life?
Based on The Royal Game, Stefan Zweig’s novella about an Austrian man who copes with isolated imprisonment under the Nazi regime by learning chess games from a stolen book, 64 Squares is about much more than just chess. It explores a mind cracking under pressure, revealing the fallibility of memory and the unreliability of personal experience. The structure that eventually emerges is that of a chess game, only looped, rewinded and fast-forwarded. There are the opening moves, the middle game where strategy is laid, and then the endgame – the point of no return.
The real beauty is in the way that it’s told. Lecoq-trained Rhum and Clay are undeniably stylish theatre-makers, combining precision and panache. Where previously their work has been all aesthetic, though, here the stunning visuals are more tightly bound to content and ideas. The chess board, for instance, becomes first an ocean liner, where B challenges the reigning world champion to a game, and later a clock, the shadows of two chess pieces forming big and little hand. Visual tricks like this abound, as the strategy of the chess game transforms into captivating choreography.
And then there’s the drumming. Under the blue haze of Geoff Hense’s gorgeous lighting, McLaren attacks (there’s no other word for it) his drum kit, lending jittery urgency to a game more often seen as slow and head-scratching. The beats, like the action, are sometimes a little too frenetic, letting details slip away in the chaos. But this fevered pace is fitting for a show about grasping memories as they begin to slide away and about making that crucial move before it’s too late.