If you had told me a few months ago that I would be seeing a play inspired by the events of 1997 when Grandmaster and World Champion Garry Kasparov took on IBM and Deep Blue, the computer designed by Feng- Hsiung Hsu and Murray Campbell in a six game chess match that took the internet and the world by storm, I would have laughed in your face. Chess, really?
Until yesterday. July 20th will go down in my theatrical ramblings with The Machine, a play written by Matt Charman and directed by Josie Rourke, as one of the most mesmerising and superbly crafted pieces of theatre I’ve ever watched.
All the action in and around the games took place in a TV studio in New York, with the matches being filmed, also shifting backwards and forwards in time to a Russian Chess school in 1973, the Krasnodar estate, the Carnegie Mellon campus, the North American Computer Chess Championship in Dallas, the Credit Suisse Grandmasters tournament, an apartment in Manhattan, an IBM computer lab, a set for a Pepsi commercial and the lobby of a hotel in Manhattan the day before the first game began, so very quickly I learned that this play wasn’t simply about a foot square board, 32 three inch pieces and two players who aren’t allowed to speak for the duration of a game. It’s about power, politics, relationships and above all the fundamental question of what it means to be human. This is where I’d like to give my first special mention to Designer Lucy Osborne, Lighting designer Mark Henderson, and Video designer Andrzej Goulding who, along with the rest of a stellar crew, helped to create and shape such a powerful and engaging atmosphere that I couldn’t take my eyes off. The set was really clever in its simplicity (four large video screens above the space, the chairs and table set with a chess board and monitor and keyboard for Hsu so he can see and make the moves dictated by Deep Blue, and a table from which the commentators watch), with all the other props being moved in and out by the company in each scene. It reminded me that yet again, less is definitely more. When it actually came to the chess games, these were projected onto the video screens above, and even as a complete newbie to the game I was utterly transfixed; due to the fact that Jonathan Watkins, choreographer, made a game that takes a tremendous amount of skill and concentration and is referred to by numerous characters as a science, and made it into an art form. Kasparov and Hsu would move their pieces with such grace and speed that it was almost like watching a ballet dance. I can only imagine how hard they must have worked to perfect their technique and remember where each piece was supposed to go! I learned so much about the game, such as where various pieces can move and important manoeuvres. My favourite sentiment was: ‘Openings only teach you openings. Endgames teach you chess.’
The entire cast were incredible, some of whom played multiple roles. Here are a selection of my standout performances and my favourite moments.
Hadley Fraser was truly sublime as Garry Kasparov. When I spoke to him prior to the show I asked him if it’s been odd not singing for a while, and he replied: ‘not really, it’s been a good and refreshing challenge, I did quite a bit of non- musical stuff early on in my career, but it might be weird for YOU guys as you’ve been following me since my Les Mis & Phantom days!’
During his performance, however, I kept thinking: ‘this isn’t weird for me at all; I’m so honored to be here watching you do something so different, so darn well! When he snuck up on me just as I was leaving to catch my train, I turned to him and said: ‘Oh hello Hadley that was good timing, well done you!’ He just smiled and asked, ‘Good different?’
Oh definitely. Kasparov strikes me as the kind of man who is extremely visceral in his emotions, wearing his heart on his sleeve, and Hadley really bought out the intensity of such emotion, whatever it might be. Watching him play chess was truly something; I’ve never felt so emotionally engaged and invested- his eyes were so expressive and every single gesture that he made, be it subtle or overt, was so meaningful. One of many favorite scenes included when he was alone in the studio and so confident in his own ability, made a passionate speech that included the line: ‘you can’t get inside my head!’ he even climbed onto the table at one stage!
His relationship with his mother Clara, played by Francesca Annis, was wonderful to see played out as it developed throughout the play, there seemed to me to be this dangerous and beautiful balance between love and resentment rippling throughout, coming to a head when Garry proclaims: ‘I can’t breathe!’ Francesca Annis gave a wonderful performance as Clara, the powerful, ambitious side to her personality really making her a force to be reckoned with. Underneath all this though, you could see that her actions were guided by love and the tender moments between her and Garry were lovely to watch. I also must here mention the work of Barbara Houseman (Voice Coach) and William Conacher (Dialect Coach) who did a great job with helping Hadley, Francesca and Cornelius with their Russian accents!
Brian Sills played Joel Benjamin, the chess Grandmaster hired as Consultant by IBM to support Deep Blue. Brian played Joel with great confidence, presence and moments of humour, a winning combination in my eyes. This was much the same for Trevor White as Murray Campbell. Cornelius Booth was a complete marvel as Anatoly Karpov. He commanded my attention every scene he was in, and in my opinion had one of the greatest speeches in the entire piece. Phil Nichol played Mandy Dinkleman, presenter of Checkmate and thus commentator on the match. He was brilliant, often bringing great warmth and humour to otherwise extremely tense proceedings, I laughed out loud on numerous occasions.
Kenneth Lee played Feng Hsiung Hsu and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey he goes on. He starts off as loveable ‘nerd’ and gradually shows signs of being a troubled soul, not really knowing how to react with the world around him beyond anything to do with technology, and Kenneth gave a really truthful, sincere performance. During a confrontation with Garry, Kasparov offers his portable chess board with the hope of another match, just so he can understand. Hsu replies: ‘I can’t play you, Garry. I’m not good enough’ , I caught my breath as it was truly heart wrenching!
I mentioned at the beginning of my blog how I never expected to find chess so riveting. If you saw me by the final moments of game six, you’d never have believed it; I was leaning forward, hardly daring to breathe. This utter concentration permeated right through, and one of Garry’s lines in particular is still going round in my head: ‘Tell me you cheated! You owe that much, it will only be between us’
The latter epitomised the power of the play as a whole for me: the idea that you can take something so private between two people like a chess match, and shape into something so all consuming to every single person in the audience. I’m really really proud to have seen it.