I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
Last night, thanks to a very nice man and a rather chaotic Twitter competition, I got to see a pre-preview of The Machine, the Manchester International Festival play about Gary Kasparov’s 1997 chess match against Deep Blue.
It was really, really good. So good that when, cycling away from Campfield Market Hall, I heard some twat uttering rubbish about ‘how boys are just more able to play chess than girls’, I didn’t crash to a halt and give him what for. I just pedalled on in my happy little haze.
I expect that, like most people coming to the production, I was wondering how one creates an engaging piece of theatre out of a chess match, especially a match where one of the players is a computer. But by way of illuminating and genuinely affecting glimpses into the life stories of Kasparov and of the creator of Deep Blue, Dr Feng-Hsiung Hsu, the play becomes personal and emotionally involving. The six games of the match provide a neat narrative structure, into which formative events of the individual stories were woven whilst allowing the chess to provide the driving force of the plot and a real sense of rising tension.
All this was backed by excellent staging and performances. The venue is the the big open space of Campfield Market, a beautiful old Victorian market hall off Deansgate which is periodically used for gigs and exhibitions and was home to the Royal Exchange Theatre for a while after the IRA bomb. The seating is arranged in four blocks around a mocked-up TV studio, complete with mobile cameras and huge screens suspended on which the live action of the match and commentator (a convincingly brassy, self-publicising, pancake-make-upped Phil Nichol as Mandy Dinkleman) are projected. Hadley Fraser’s Kasparov was brilliant – volatile, damaged, obsessive; Kenneth Lee’s Dr Hsu equally good – a vulnerable, geeky genius. There are even flashes of a kind of class unity between the two – Kasparov’s bitter comment about growing up on the streets of Baku versus Hsu’s desperate drive to justify the sacrifices his parents have made to send him to university in the USA, and the growing frustration of both at IBM’s corporate machinations.
Other stand-out performances included David Mumeni (I think) as a cynical, ridiculous ad-man of a type one might find posing in any trendy city-centre bar, Brian Sills as second-rate, self-aggrandising grand master Joel Benjamin, and someone I can’t work out (there’s quite a bit of doubling-up of roles) as Nigel Short, a hilariously tweedy British chess master.
As well as the glitzy lighting, and slick TV-set environment, other aspects of the actual production were also terrific. The chess board itself, and the overhead camera focusing on it, were inventively used to drive the action along and convey the tension of the game, and Kasparov’s role, especially, incorporated a sheer physicality which one wouldn’t expect of the subject matter.
Of course, this was a pre-preview so not everything was note-perfect. A few of the accents were a little odd, notably Kasparov’s Australian agent and an Indian (????) computer geek at Carnegie Mellon early in the plot. A few lines got dropped, but rapidly picked back up. But these were minor, minor blips. This is a fun, thoughtful, engaging, inventive piece of theatre that is well worth seeing in Manchester or (I think) in future shows at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
And here’s a little trailer: