As one would reasonably expect from a well-constructed one-person performance, miscellaneous characters are portrayed in a manner that demonstrates the actor’s versatility. What sets The Chess Player apart is the ability to look at the storyline from more than one perspective. True, Richard McElvain is helped by Stefan Zweig’s novella, published posthumously (he and his second wife, Charlotte Elisabeth Altmann, took a fatal drug overdose in February 1942). The inclusion of McElvain’s own thought processes as the play itself was being developed takes various forms – including arguments with ‘himself’ (or, rather, a lively discussion between himself and another character), and on a few occasions, direct addresses and appeals to the audience.
McElvain attempts, or so it would seem, to satisfy two broad categories of audience members, those who have read Zweig’s book, and those, like this reviewer, who have not. So, for example, it was deemed necessary to explain that a particular scene was being truncated, albeit for artistic reasons. Much is made, too, of this being a fictional work, and once a dramatic ending is reached, there’s a brief consideration of the theatre as an illusion.
By way of illustration, McElvain asserts that if someone dies in a road traffic collision, that person’s friends and family will mourn, and a funeral will likely be held for them. But if someone dies in a Shakespeare play (and there are many deaths in many Shakespeare plays), it is expected that the actor playing the dead character will take a bow at curtain call. And yet, it is entirely possible to be stirred and intrigued by what happens on stage, rather like being ‘moved’ by a poignant song but without actually having moved an inch. This sort of philosophising contrasts with the sheer lack of activity that the central character undergoes, by force, being given solitary confinement by the Third Reich, simply for being Jewish.
The man is spared extermination because the Nazis believe he has information that can help them. Instead, he is placed in solitary confinement, with no tasks of any kind to do, let alone hard labour: it is truly punishing, however blissful it may seem to those who have a lot of professional and personal commitments. Here, the passing days and weeks are ridiculously repetitive, but also compelling viewing, because one sees what the mind is capable of.
No prior knowledge of the chess game is required; I was taught some basics as a child, but the level of know-how demonstrated in this show is substantially more sophisticated. Make of this what you will: there’s no actual chess board in a show about a chess player. There’s also (potential spoiler alert) a teaspoonful of audience participation – it doesn’t, I hasten to add, involve anybody leaving their seat.
Now, here’s some food for thought: but how would one go about surviving such difficult circumstances? It doesn’t, as the final scenes indicate, end well for the chess player. Quite a harrowing story, the chops and changes between characters are rapid and smooth. An intense and invigorating production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A battle rages inside prisoner’s mind as he struggles against insanity while held in solitary confinement in a Nazi jail. After stealing a book of chess matches, he divides his conscious self into two feuding chess masters. The Chess Player is a contemporary reimagining of a classic tale written by Jewish Austrian Stefan Zweig when he was escaping the horrors of Nazism. Award-winning US actor and director Richard McElvain’s interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.
OSO Arts Centre, 49 Station Rd, London SW13 0LF, UK
May 22-26 2018