‘Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer’ at Hampstead Theatre: Outstanding performance from a strong cast is the redeeming factor for the dragging second act

The playing of arts and sports for political posturing; international competitions have a history of facilitating mudslinging and showing off. At one point during Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer, I wondered who in the audience remembered a time when a chess game could be a global sporting sensation. Not I, nor playwright Tom Morton-Smith apparently; ‘It’s a little before my time, yes’, he tells Executive Producer Greg Ripley-Duggan.

In 2015, the neoteric playwright Morton-Smith’s 5-star spectacle Oppenheimer took on the birth of the atomic bomb. Now he is delving into the aftermath. Ravens: Spassky Vs. Fischer opens in 1972, before a World Championship chess tournament in Reykjavik amid the tension of the Cold War. Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, chess champions/competitors, are to fight it out on the board. But they soon begin to question the integrity of their contest, the significance of their success and whether the gods of politics might at least stay away from their passion.

Ronan Raferty (Boris Spassky) and Robert Emms (Bobby Fischer) about to face each other in a game that perfectly epitomises the nature of the Cold War

A well-paced script promised a strong first act, interspersed with some hotshot historical humour and inventive set design. Ronan Raftery gives a layered, sensitive performance as the disenchanted Spassky. His Soviet entourage of generous characters bears a side-plot of suspicion and espionage that carries the play into some surprising places.

On the American side, the infantile, egotistical Bobby Fischer is played with ferocious dedication to character physicality and intention by Robert Emms. In fact, Emms’ vigorous exertion as Fischer seemed to bring the play to a brief standstill in the second act when he collapsed during one of the act’s many outburst scenes. Kudos for the show-must-go-on swift recovery.

Set and wardrobe impressed me for their convincing 70’s aesthetic, but the billows of stage cigarette smoke might have been responsible for the accompaniment of coughs from the auditorium (that, or whatever’s been making the rounds this season). Design mirrored the disorder of the narrative itself at times, and it was clear that Annabelle Comyn’s direction was conscientious and multifaceted.    

For a play about a chess game enveloped in some complex geohistorical context, I found Ravens accessible, and Morton-Smith’s emphasis on the human journeys embarked on by the characters over explicating the political mechanics of the time paid off. The second act failed to keep me as captivated as the first. It was tough not to notice that much of what strung the play together at times was a sequence of melodramatic tantrums. Nevertheless, the strong cast of collaborative actors and an eye for detail in most aspects makes for a neat and frank show, with a side portion of a decent history lesson.

Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer will be on at Hampstead Theatre, London from the 28th November – 18th January

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Rex is studying for a BA in English and Drama at Goldsmiths. He is especially interested in new political writing, theatre directing and contemporary French and German theatre.

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