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Review: Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer, at Hampstead Theatre

02 January, 2020 — By Sipora Levy

Ronan Raftery and Robert Emms in Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer

BILLED as a “Cold War thriller”, Tom Morton-Smith’s play depicts “The Match of the Century”: the famous chess competition between the Russian Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer that took place in Reykjavik in 1972.

The focus is on the psychological battle between two totally different personalities representing not only their countries but opposing ideologies.

Ronan Raftery plays the enigmatic Spassky with restraint and composure. He has been chess world champion for several years and is confident in his abilities, until Fischer (an electrifying performance by Robert Emms) gets the upper hand. His entourage are convinced that Fischer is cheating and in time Spassky becomes paranoid too.

Morton-Smith, whose previous work includes the highly acclaimed Oppenheimer, paints Fischer as an unhinged brat, prone to tantrums and anti-semitic tirades (even though his mother is Jewish). At one point, he shockingly spits in the face of a match official.

He appears to be mentored by Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) who creepily telephones from the United States to boost his morale.

I wanted to know more about Spassky, his character and his motivations, and also the wider political background. This was a time when Russia was becoming less dominant in the Middle East and the US was deeply embroiled in Vietnam. It’s a pity these issues were not fully explored during the play’s 165-minute duration.

The director (Annabelle Comyn), designer (Jamie Vartan) and composer (Philip Stewart) manage to lift what might have been a dry, cerebral evening into something more dynamic, with slick video projections and chilling sound effects.

If you are looking for an antidote to the ubiquitous pantomimes, you might be tempted by this unsentimental look at genius and obsession with winning.

Until January 18
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