Life as a desperate game of chess. That’s the thread woven through this illuminating adaptation of The Royal Game, a novella published in 1942 after the suicide of its author, Stefan Zweig, an Austrian-Jewish exile forced from his home by the rise of fascism. From tragic roots, Rhum and Clay Theatre have created a show that is beautifully imaginative, with real emotional heft.
Devised by the company, it borrows the basic plot from the novella – itself a re-working of Zweig’s personal history – and uses it to explore the interplay of memory, loss and the will to survive. Here, ‘B’ becomes Charlotte Dubery, Julian Spooner, Matthew Wells and drummer Fred McClaren – one person fractured into four. They are the unreliable narrators of their own story, turning the New Diorama stage into a psychological landscape.
Gradually, we learn both how ‘B’ has ended up on a cruise ship destined for New York and the reason for his incredible aptitude at chess, which sees him pit himself against famed prodigy Mirko Czentovic in the bowels of the vessel one stormy night. It’s the story of a man deprived of his identity and imprisoned by the Gestapo when the Third Reich annexed Austria in 1938. It’s about his endurance by memorising a book of the world’s greatest chess games.
But as one chess move is the first step in a chain reaction of consequences that aren’t always clear to observers until the end, so, too, are the episodes here. The ensemble interrupt scenes because of forgotten details and important moments are re-played differently. Like the roll of the ship, the narrative appears to slip, slide and evade us as B’s memories shake themselves loose. Only when we reach the truth do we realise how beautifully plotted the endgame has been.
The on-stage trio conjure a world out of a handful of props and cut-outs, using shadow-play and as little as the rustle of a sheet to transform the stage space into an impressionistic landscape of decks, high seas, offices and isolation rooms. With pin-sharp choreography, they fuse pathos and farce in a flutter of pained expressions and paper in a ransacked office. Love is captured in the act of two hands brushing again and again, obstinately, as ‘B’ tries – and fails – to think of anything else.
Meanwhile, McLaren (also the show’s musical director) deserves praise for turning his drums into another unique voice in the chorus and his microphone into an endless source of aural effects. He adds much to the atmosphere of an original production that, under Christopher Harrisson’s direction, elevates the quirky to the lyrical and finds something sad but also extraordinary in a mind’s capacity to endure – whatever the cost. It promises much for Rhum and Clay’s next move.