Look, I get it. Epic stories about sports heroes representing their nations on a grand scale are perfect fodder for film and theatre. They’re dramatic on an interpersonal, political, and macro level all at once. I’m an American – the sports metaphor for the Cold War is practically how it’s taught in school, rather than any actual engagement with Russian/Soviet history. I’ve seen Miracle too many times thanks to rainy days in P.E. – that Disney biopic about US Olympic Hockey Coach Herb Brook who led the ‘underdog’ American ice hockey team to victory against the ‘evil’ conquering Soviets in 1980. There’s always Rocky. I’ve seen Frost/Nixon, I’m familiar with the battle-of-wits between two historically monumental figures, the quasi-tragic Nixon being broken by the always-calculating reporter. Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer aims to be all of that, but with the American propagandist veneer scraped off.
It’s 1972, a world staged with high ceilings, furniture with simple browns and greys, boxy TVs, and men in tailored flared suits of browns and blues, always holding an ashtray and a cigarette. Specifically, it’s Reykjavik, Iceland, where defending World Chess Champion Boris Spassky of the USSR is meant to face off against American contender, Bobby Fischer for the title. Boris (astutely played by Ronan Raftery) is soft-spoken, driven, focused if overly-obsessed. He’s been groomed to play chess, and losing the title means more than losing a sense of honour: the trips to the West, the lax KGB presence in his life, all of the freedoms he’s taken for granted as a Soviet star can be taken from him in an instant. It’s a deep enough threat to drive him to desperation. Bobby is… a monstrous handful. Or at least, that’s how Tom Morton-Smith characterises these two protagonists. Bobby, played excellently by Robert Emms, is a wildly unpredictable, temperamental, angry, anti-Semitic man, who happens to be world-class at chess. Emms’s Bobby is a man-child, hunched over in a permanent sulk, while also spry and constantly moving. He knows how to manipulate the board and the people behind it. He’s here to break Spassky, not just defeat him. Bobby sees the world as everyone versus him – he’s paranoid to the point of extreme dysfunction and cruelty. Apparently his chess-playing is absolutely revolutionary, but ironically, the production doesn’t stage the chess performances, nor is it really a play for teaching the audience about the beauty of chess. At least, not literally.
The chess matches are performed like dances: one match is represented by synchronised movements of sipping water over the table, another by simply standing and facing each other, and in one stunning scene, the match is defined by their repeated fidgets and mannerisms, Spassky leaning forward and adjusting his jacket over and over again, Fischer spinning in his roller-chair, sped up and slowed down in brilliant tension. In one case, the match is performed by the two opposing managerial teams as they all don gloves to search the room for radiation devices, speakers and cameras they just know the opposing side has planted.
With such a dense yet unfocused piece, it’s hard to say what Ravens is ‘actually’ about. If it’s not about the chess game, it’s about national power and how it manifests in individuals. It’s a character study of Bobby Fischer. It’s about the free pass and blind-eye nations give to ‘geniuses’ like Spassky and Fischer, for the sake of the national propaganda their sporting perpetuates. The temper-tantrums Bobby throws in the chess arena are all tolerated by the International Chess Federation because Fischer’s profile is giving the entire sport a global boost. Henry Kissinger calls Bobby regularly to make sure he actually shows up to the match the next day. He winds Bobby up by feeding into his insecurities, which blend perfectly with anti-Soviet propaganda: the Soviets have everything handed to them, Bobby, the individualist American, has worked hard for everything, he will earn the title.
Besides being overly-ambitious and lofty in narrative scope, the production itself also develops some fascinating if half-developed provocations. The cross-casting of Fred Kramer, one of Fischer’s managers, and Nikolai Krogius, one of Spassky’s managers, lets the fantastic actors Buffy Davis and Rebecca Scroggs respectively take on the classic blustering, huffy managerial roles usually reserved in biopics for gruff older men. Scroggs in particular brings an excellent depth to the role, which otherwise often comes off as the way for Morton-Smith to philosophise about chess and politics. And the otherwise rather bland set comes to life as the entire lighting fixture is collapsed and the set pieces taken apart as both teams ransack the space to find evidence of sabotage. All of this makes for a fascinating, if dense, two hours and forty-five minutes of drama where I know, for once, that the narrative isn’t here to tell me who is the hero and who is the loser. But still, when Bobby does win, the denouement feels rather flat. Whereas Frost/Nixon, Rocky IV and even Miracle craft tightly wound, high-stake narratives out of histories that have endings we already know, the stakes here never feel clearly defined enough to have a full payoff. Were we meant to be rooting for someone? Or something?
Ravens is on at Hampstead Theatre until 18th January. More info and tickets here.