A masterly staging of a gripping war game
I have to admit to not being a chess player. It’s a tribute to Richard McElvain, and of course to Stefan Zweig’s original story, that this dramatised account of how a man might survive and even triumph over extreme deprivation thanks to resilience, will power and a chess manual gripped me straightaway. Just after the Anschluss, a Viennese Jewish lawyer imprisoned by the Gestapo is kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, save for when he is marched off for repeated intensive interrogation. He manages to steal a book from his tormentors that turns out to be that chess manual. And his salvation.
The loneliness of solitary confinement isn't echoed by the solo performer in this one-man show, for McElvain’s clever conceit is to involve the audience as extras before the lights go down, rehearsing us in responses expected from the audience at a chess championship game and challenging us to explain what it’s all about before the evening is out. Furthermore, there’s fun with his stage manager about lighting cues, which also serves to establish McElvain’s identity as writer/performer playing multiple parts. This he does with elegant switches of voice and body language (and accent, for he is an American playing Europeans). Brecht would have approved.
McElvain skilfully folds the main narrative into a story within a story. His opening gambit is a game on a transatlantic liner in which the eponymous player coaches an American playing a chess grand master to a draw rather than certain defeat. He relishes all his roles, above all of course the prisoner (the eponymous chess player), but also the American, astonished admirer of his brilliant strategy to whom he tells his story; and that grand master, the prisoner’s eventual opponent, a chess child prodigy who also grew up to be a died-in-the-wool Hungarian Nazi sympathiser and so, neatly, a Jew-hater.
At the story’s centre, though, is the agony of incarceration, brilliantly evoked by the unnerving repetition of the mind-numbing regime of alternating sudden darkness at lights out and blazing lights with deafening siren to signify day. McElvain cleverly paces the regime by accelerating it so that his prisoner’s mind manically disintegrates too. Until that is, he happens on that book. His gleeful delight, his determination to save it as a special treat and then his gradual mastery of every move and game and his final desperate schizophrenia, splitting himself into black self and white self, all make for totally absorbing theatre.
It’s all done with the minimum of props and staging: just one main chair and table, a board bed and an all-purpose hand-held block to represent all the chess pieces on an imaginary board. Atmospheric zither music, reminiscent of The Third Man, recalls Vienna and Larry Buckley’s complex soundscape enriches the experience.
It’s only thanks to a breakdown that puts the prisoner into the hands of a kindly hospital doctor that he is lucky enough to survive to play that shipboard game. Zweig himself did not survive, committing suicide with his wife in 1942, just days after completing this novella. He would surely have delighted in the survival of his work and the game-changer that is McElvain’s staging.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Samantha deManbey
This review of The Chess Player is of the run at OSO Arts Centre, 22-26 May 2018. www.osoarts.org.uk