Chess, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderrson’s 1980s musical, is a story about the board game, love and the Cold War. Capturing ideological tensions through a world chess championship between an American (Freddie Trumper) and Russian (Anatoly Sergievsky), it reveals how the global conflict also destroyed individual lives by affecting personal relationships.
When Trumper (world champion at the start) loses to Sergievsky after his own successes and insecurities destroy him, the Russian promptly ‘steals’ the American’s second, Florence Vassy, and defects to the West. He then finds that he can only retain his crown by devoting himself entirely to the game and disregarding everything around him, including wife (Svetlana), lover (Florence) and Soviet pressure.
Despite enjoying three years in the West End from 1986 and a cult following still, Chess was never the most major of hits. This is because its undoubted intelligence always walked hand in hand with a slightly unwieldy plot, even if for every critic who claimed it was too unbelievable there was a Grandmaster who suggested that, in comparison with the real chess world, it was not incredible enough. Over the years it has undergone numerous incarnations, but lyricist Tim Rice felt that the version presented in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008 (now available on DVD) had finally cracked it, and declared it to be the official one. This has appeared several times since, including in 2013 when Rice granted special permission for the tiny, but highly accomplished, Union Theatre to stage it. Nevertheless, this new English National Opera production, which enjoys a five-week run at the Coliseum, constitutes the first major revival of the musical in London in thirty years.
Although the work’s themes are highly interesting, its strength ultimately lies in its music. To describe Chess as a rock musical would be misleading, as its songs come in many styles, but it is often at its strongest when it feels akin to being one. The catchy ‘Press Conference’ generates tension and excitement, while the climax to ‘The Deal’ takes the impassioned cries of the relevant characters to levels that only musical theatre could ever get away with. At the same time, solos such as ‘Nobody’s Side’ and the highly emotive ‘Pity the Child’ seem to place the singer alone in an arena as they spill out their thoughts and fears to the world.
The orchestra includes guitars and keyboards alongside strings, wind, brass and percussion. In this instance, it is placed halfway up the stage with the nearly sixty-strong ensemble, conducted for all but three performances by John Rigby, comprising the Orchestra of English National Opera. Although its size would be unremarkable for most operas that appear on the Coliseum stage, a lengthy West End run of the show could never hope to enjoy such large forces.
The group plays extremely well, and if it seems a shame that the amplification means that it never really gets the chance to show off its credentials as a first rate orchestra, this is hardly a cause for complaint. If someone is not going to hook into an evening in which the music and emotions are rendered in such a driven (and arguably overblown) fashion, then this is not the musical for them. The point is that Chess stands as a great achievement within its genre, with The Times in 1986 describing it as ‘a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into an intelligent form of life’. It should also be remembered that there is still a great deal of variety in the music. If Mozart (at least in Amadeus) said that opera, unlike theatre, allows multiple characters to espouse their thoughts simultaneously, the quartet ‘A Model of Decorum and Tranquillity’ proves that musical theatre can also enable this.
In Laurence Connor’s staging the production values are exceptionally high. Designer Matt Kinley has scattered squares across the stage and beyond the proscenium arch, with the resulting fractured chessboard hinting at the disruption of order that we see in the show. Two clusters of these squares stand either side of the orchestra and form huge screens upon which projections appear. In this way, the ‘Game of Chess’ is accompanied by silhouetted images that describe the game’s journey from East to West across the centuries. Often characters are filmed as they sing, with their faces then projected onto the left and right hand screens in mirror images of each other. During the duet ‘I Know Him So Well’ Florence and Svetlana’s faces overlap, and fade in and out depending on who is singing at the time.
The first chess match has the courage to include the entire five minutes of accompanying music, when so little action occurs as the two players sit at a chessboard. Our interest is sustained, however, because we see their faces in close up, and through this appreciate that Anatoly is playing the board while Freddie is playing the man. Meanwhile, images associated with the Cold War (whether these be of Sputnik or Ronald Reagan) appear in the background, courtesy of video designer Terry Scruby.
The success of Chess has always rested on its ability to contrast personal soul searching (in solos such as ‘Heaven Help My Heart’ and ‘Anthem’) with lighter, more exuberant spectacle. This production presents the deliberately cheesy ‘Merano’, highly amusing ‘Embassy Lament’ and ‘exotic’ but seedy ‘One Night in Bangkok’ well, with Stephen Mear’s choreography hitting the mark. It does not, however, always place numbers on the right side of the divide. For example, by seeing Florence and Anatoly surrounded by revellers in a tavern in ‘Mountain Duet’, we lose any sense of intimacy in their awkward yet intriguing encounter, especially since he spends half of the song away from her as he works his way to the bar to buy more drinks.
The show still sees a clumsy interaction between its music and dialogue so that the exciting ‘One Night in Bangkok’ finishes, and suddenly we are taken to an incongruent and flatter plane as Florence and Anatoly converse with no musical underscoring even. The original West End production featured very little dialogue but the heavily revised 1988 Broadway version (which ran for ten weeks) introduced significantly more in order to clarify points. Different versions have added further dialogue in places, while deeming that other sections could be safely removed, but much of what currently exists feels deliberate and uneasy. It seems a mistake to break the magic of ‘Merano’ by having Florence frequently speaking to Freddie during his section of the song, or to interrupt the otherwise excellent ‘The Soviet Machine’, with its references to Cossack dancing, by having the KGB Agent Molokov receive a telephone call in the middle of it.
Similarly, this production only sees the Russian delegation sing and dance to ‘Diplomats’, instead making ‘Merchandisers’ that follows an intrinsically American affair. The problem in not pitting the Russian and American diplomats against each other in the former song is that the two sides are not set up as a theatrical device. As a result, while some productions have created a huge dramatic moment when Anatoly defects to the West, by seeing him cross over from his own delegation to the Americans, this version totally fluffs the moment by simply having a newsreader report that he has defected on a screen.
The two lead male roles demand very different voices as Freddie, in order to emphasise his fame, has to sing like a rock star. If, however, Tim Howar is required practically to scream his character’s section of ‘Merano’, his tenor has a robustness that makes his cries feel thoroughly musical, thus ensuring that he prevails handsomely in the role. Anatoly requires a more classical voice, so that the part could be played by someone from either an opera or musical theatre background. Michael Ball may get off to an uncomfortable start as he initially seems to lack the right persona for the role of a Russian Grandmaster. In addition, his first large solo ‘Where I Want to Be’ sees him splay his sound a little too much to put expression into his lines, when more operatic focus in his approach would be welcome. After this, however, he really grows into the role so that, with masterly renditions of ‘Anthem’ and ‘End Game’, he delivers arguably the strongest performance of the evening.
Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal provide good support as Molokov and the Arbiter respectively, while Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson excel as Svetlana and Florence. Burke delivers a highly accomplished performance in a role that it is difficult to do much with, but it is Janson who really puts soul into every note that she sings. Anything wrong with this production of Chess is far outweighed by all that is right, not least because when it is good it proves to be very good indeed.