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Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer at Hampstead Theatre | Review

Ronan Raftery (Boris Spassky) and Robert Emms (Bobby Fischer) in Ravens Spassky v Fischer at Hampstead Theatre. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Ronan Raftery (Boris Spassky) and Robert Emms (Bobby Fischer) in Ravens Spassky v Fischer at Hampstead Theatre. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Fittingly for a Cold War proxy event the 1972 World Chess Championship clash between the Russian Boris Spassky and the American Bobby Fischer took place in Iceland. Seen as a neutral it hosted the extraordinary global media circus which surrounded the unprecedented chess showdown between the two superpowers. Chess became war by other means. The two players in effect became pawns , pun intended, in this great global battle for hegemony. Chess is a perfect analogy for Cold War because it is in fact a game of military strategy.

Add to the mix wall to wall TV coverage, huge prize money, national honour, (“cue fanfare” in the words of the Prefab Sprout song) a ticker tape parade, medals of honour, a postage stamp with your face on it, calls from Henry Kissinger offering support and the KGB monitoring Spassky’s every move and you have all the makings of an epic political and psychological thriller. Ravens delivers all this and more. Superbly written by Tom Morton Smith author of the excellent Oppenheimer (as he himself says he is in danger of only writing about Jews from New York called Robert) and directed with panache by the Irish director Annabelle Comyn, Ravens uses that moment back in 1972 to shine a light on the world in 2019. The parallels are obvious and alarming. This is a fascinating play which I found gripping and a good watch.

The undoubted star of Ravens is Robert Emms as Bobby Fischer. Obnoxious doesn’t come close to describing this spoilt brat. A bizarre mixture of ego maniac, narcissist, a Jew who hates Jews (at one point he asks Kissinger to save the elephants from extinction because the Jews want them destroyed as their trunks look like uncircumcised penises), an American who despises America he makes John McEnroe look polite. He struts about the stage, spitting, shoving, shouting, screaming, threatening and making ever more impossible demands (the cameras are too close, the lights too dark, too light, the table too high, the board not right, the audience too close – in a brilliant moment he comes to the edge of the stage and points at the first two rows and demands that all the seats be taken out). He misses the first game because he is holding out for more money. And yet despite, or because of all this, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The acting is absolutely enthralling. Robert Emms is utterly compelling. The performance he gives is so strong, it verges on the psychotic. In contrast Ronan Rafferty as Boris Spassky has the perennial problem of the good man: being good is boring. As his aide de camp Efim Geller (Gyuri Sarossy) tells him you have been undone by your adherence to the bourgeois rules of decorum. You are too nice. Such are the delicious ironies of Ravens. A play which will enthral, exhilarate and entertain you in three gripping hours of epic drama.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Reykjavik, 1972. All eyes are on Iceland ahead of ‘the Match of the Century’: Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer in the World Chess Championship. Never before in chess history has a tournament attracted such global media attention. And for the two contenders, Spassky the World Champion and the maverick superstar Fischer, the stakes have never been higher – not only the world title, but unprecedented prize money and stratospheric fame are all on the table.

But as the Cold War begins to heat up, each side of the Atlantic spots a major opportunity to demonstrate superiority over the other. So why hasn’t America’s knight in shining armour shown up? And why won’t Russia’s grandmaster listen to orders? As the two superpowers prepare their opening gambits in a proxy battle of ideologies, with sport as the weapon of choice, both sides find themselves undermined by their pawns, who seem oddly unwilling to cooperate…

Tom Morton-Smith’s gripping psychological thriller depicts a match that became a signature event of the Cold War, exploring how two very different individuals were co-opted to stand for contrasting political systems.

CAST
GUÐMUNDUR ÞÓRARINSSON – GUNNAR CAUTHERY
MAX EUWE – SIMON CHANDLER
FRED CRAMER / LINA GRUMETTE – BUFFY DAVIS
LOTHAR SCHMID – PHILIP DESMEULES
BOBBY FISCHER – ROBERT EMMS
WILLIAM LOMBARDY / HENRY KISSINGER – SOLOMON ISRAEL
IIVO NEI – BERUCE KHAN
REGINA FISCHER – EMMA PALLANT
BORIS SPASSKY – RONAN RAFTERY
NIKOLAI KROGIUS – REBECCA SCROGGS
EFIM GELLER – GYURI SAROSSY
SÆMUNDUR “SÆMI-ROKK” PÁLSSON – GARY SHELFORD

ARTISTIC TEAM
WRITER – TOM MORTON-SMITH
DIRECTOR – ANNABELLE COMYN
DESIGNER – JAMIE VARTAN
LIGHTING – HOWARD HARRISON
COMPOSER AND SOUND – PHILIP STEWART
VIDEO – JACK PHELAN
MOVEMENT – MIKE ASHCROFT
CASTING – JULIET HORSLEY CDG

A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE
RAVENS: SPASSKY VS. FISCHER
BY TOM MORTON-SMITH
DIRECTED BY ANNABELLE COMYN
Running time: 2 HOURS AND 45 MINUTES WITH AN INTERVAL
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Author

  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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