Pros: Richard McElvain – a true showman and actor with a myriad of talents – delivers an agile and engaging performance.
Cons: The complexity of the story and the wide range of characters aren’t suitable for a one man show.
Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and former world chess champion, was once quoted saying “Chess is life in miniature. Chess is struggle. Chess is battles.” The Royal Game, the novella on which the play we are reviewing is based, like Kasparov’s chess is also about life, struggle and battles. It’s about survival and power. Written by Stefan Zweig during his exile from Nazi Europe in 1941, it was one of his last works before the celebrated Austrian writer committed suicide together with his wife in their last home in Brazil.
The Chess Player is a captivating and gripping story about an Austrian Jewish lawyer, Dr B, who is imprisoned by the Nazis for his past connections with the monarchy. He is placed into solitary confinement and routinely subjected to interrogation by the Gestapo, who want to know where the aristocrats had hidden their money.
When Dr B is about to lose his mind as a result of his tortuous internment, he manages to steal a book of chess games from the pocket of a soldier’s coat. He memorises all the games by heart and although this helps him to keep his sanity stable for a while, soon the chess movements become too familiar. He decides to play matches against himself, resulting in a nervous breakdown which lands him into hospital. A doctor who takes pity on him arranges his release from prison and instead of going back to internment Dr B is sent into exile.
After this flashback to his incarceration by the Nazis, the action returns to a cruise scene that opened the play. In it an American is playing chess with one of the game’s great masters, the Hungarian Mirko Czentrovic. While playing against Czentrovic the American is advised on his next move by a stranger, who is then identified as Dr B. Czentrovic challenges the doctor to a game. Before the match between the Hungarian and Dr B begins, a man called Lazlo Kohler, who claims to be Mirko’s agent, emerges from the public to explain the great master’s story. There’s another flashback to Czentrovic and Kohler’s past before the final match between Mirko and Dr B takes place.
In this ambitious project Richard McElvain, on top of adapting the Austrian writer’s work for the stage, is also in charge of bringing each of the characters to life. Luckily for his audience, McElvain is an outstanding performer able to impersonate a wide variety of people with remarkable vitality.
However, The Chess Player is a complex story with multiple layers of meaning which requires the spectator’s full attention during the entire unfolding of the play. Missing a detail can affect one’s understanding of the whole picture. If someone is unware of the plot, the fact that all characters are played by the same actor, combined with the flashbacks and intricate arguments, can make this a very difficult play to follow. It is for this reason that I don’t think The Royal Game is suited to be a one man show, despite McElvain’s brilliance. Like some of the best works by Zweig, this is a story meant to be read over and over again. While a stage adaptation is possible, it doesn’t quite work here.
Author: Richard McElvain from an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game
Director: Richard McElvain
Producer: Theatre Omnibus
Booking Until: 26 May 2018
Box Office: 020 8876 9885
Booking Link: www.osoarts.org.uk