Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Theatre’

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer, Hampstead Theatre 1500 7 December

December 8, 2019



Part of Soviet delegation looking worried

So this was a play about the Spassky vs Fischer World Chess Championship Match of 1972.  It began with the actors playing the Soviet delegation (or Spassky’s team) speaking in what they thought was Russian.  Then they changed to English.

The curse of realism was certainly avoided, often by use of what one audience member near me described as antics.  Nikolai Krogius,  a psychologist and perhaps the leader of Spassky’s team, was played by Rebecca Scroggs, and the resemblance was not striking.


Rebecca Scroggs as Nikolai Krogius


Nikolai Krogius as Nikolai Krogius

Russia and the Soviet Union

More of a concern was the fact that Ms Scroggs  as Krogius seemed the one of Spassky’s team who was most willing to compromise with reality, while the Russian Wikipedia article lays great stress on his pedantic nature and prominent position in the Soviet sports bureaucracy.  Oh yes; Spassky’s team referred to Russia  rather than the Soviet Union, and were equipped with regional accents which might have been meant to indicate that Geller was from  Ukraine and Nei from Estonia.  They also referred to ‘the Kremlin’ (impossible) rather than ‘Moscow’,  ‘the Committee’, ‘them’…


The main problem with the play–allowing that the average punter does not want to know about either chess or Russian history–was that it did not seem to know what it wanted to be about.  The Cold War as a kind of myth (like the Trojan War say) was not really developed (in spite of phone calls from Henry Kissinger), while we had indications of Tennessee Williams (Fischer as a self-deluding fantasist confronting his mother , but you need to be a proper failure for that to work), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (Spassky describing his life in the orphanage), Philip Glass (repetitive music, repetitive movements, stylised video displays), and probably many others.  If we were left with anything, it was the portrayal of Fischer as a deranged narcissistic individual, of an extremity that is probably unfair for the Fischer of 1972 (but not later, see the film).


As for chess, I think you should at least get the words right.  Instead of a match consisting of individual games we had a tournament made up of matches.  The initial drawing of lots (to determine colours) was described by some phrase I didn’t understand, and instead of the score of a game we had a move list.  Spassky’s seconds are shown preparing for Game 3 in the certainty that Fischer would defend 1. d4 with the King’s Indian, when he had already played something different–the Nimzo-Indian–in Game 1.

Nobody even now really understands why the Soviet side didn’t just have Fischer defaulted when he didn’t appear at the beginning of the match, though the play follows the explanation given by Spassky that he just wanted to play.

Fischer and Spassky

You don’t really understand that Fischer had won the Candidates’ Matches in annihilatory fashion or that he had a long history of impossible demands about playing conditions, which seemed to be partly a reflection of a tortured psyche and partly attempting to get an advantage.  He is made to say that he plays not to win but to avoid losing, when one great difference between him and the Soviet professionals of his era was that he played to win (nearly) all the time.  His statement that you only know somebody when you’ve crushed their ego by playing them at chess could have been combined with the similarities between him and Spassky (disturbed childhood in many different places, absent fathers, raised by their mothers, sisters played an important part…)

Fischer’s Icelandic security-cum-minder tells a story about how Flóki Vilgerðarson found Iceland by releasing ravens from his boat until the third one headed of determinedly towards the North-West, whereupon Floki followed it and arrived in Reykjavik.  The suggestion is that Fischer is another such pathfinder; but he refers to becoming The Muhammad Ali of chess so in the world of the play the cult of celebrity already exists.


It all seemed very long, as many people said in the audience.  But I only checked once to see that my watch was still going and it gave me something to think about/disagree with

55 Days, Hampstead Theatre 19 October

October 22, 2012


Mark Gatiss as Charles I

A woman behind me said “We’re in the Republican area, thank God”, and as I stared across the stage at those brazen enough to declare for the Royalist cause–how could anyone do such a thing–I could only agree with her.  With author and director both called Howard I was certainly anticipating a suitably low-class take on things.  And after a start that recalled a less successful Civil War play, the action here proceeded with increasing tension and focus.  I thought that the decision to portray Charles Stuart as a failed comic actor (Mark Gatiss) was entirely appropriate, while Douglas Henshall foxed and charmed his way as Cromwell.

The trial was of course a complete charade and Charles Stuart was indeed quite right to point out that the court was not a court and anyway there was no law to try a King under.  The idea that Cromwell was fighting for a constitutional monarchy was presented convincingly, while the obligatory scene between him and Charles Stuart went off well, weather and bitter humour and all.  I was prepared to shed patriotic tears at the thought of King Charles and Oliver Cromwell both being brave men doing what they honestly thought was best for the country when the act of signing the death warrant brought about a fit of giggles in the regicides…entirely scripted, I should say…

So very well done and well worth seeing!  This was a preview, but I think I’m allowed to express opinions as long as they’re positive.

Salome (Oscar Wilde) Hampstead Theatre 26 June

June 27, 2010


Picture of Herod and Herodias from /

This production (credited to Headlong Theatre and The Curve Leicester) appeared to be set in the Niger delta with oozing oil and characters dressed in ragged denims waving sub machine guns.  Salome (Zawe Ashton) frequently referred to the body of Jokanaan (Seun Shote) as being exceedingly white, but he looked like a black man caked with oil to me.  She also at one point referred to her litter passing by ‘idol-buyers’ at a bridge; presumably she meant ‘idol-sellers’.  She didn’t get a silver charger to go with Jokanaan’s head either.

I’m not going to complain about the awful drab ugliness of the set (after all, war isn’t pretty), though in a play it would be helpful if one lost fewer of the words due to noisy machinery or characters facing away from you (in the middle of the stalls).

My complaint is that if the play is meant to be Decadent, then there must be something to decay.  Drunken oil-covered soldiers aren’t it.  The whole point of someone like Herod was to impress his power and glory on the populace (and so reassure his Roman patrons) by  continual awe-inspiring display.  So then this gives a lot of rose for the worm to gnaw at, both in the aesthetic hypertrophy breaking out in characters’ descriptions of the moon and so on and in Salome’s perverse desires undermining the painfully-maintained order of things.  Herod wandering around in decaying denim with what appears to be an article of Salome’s underwear round his head doesn’t really do it (not even if he was whited-up, which I think is the one historically-plausible item I noted).

On the positive side, I thought that Wilde’s text was actually rather good, as far as I could tell from this (mis)treatment…Maybe like ‘Lulu’ this one is better left as an opera…