The Chess Player (2 stars)

This article is from 2017

The Chess Player

Obsession and insanity meet in a muddled one-man show

For those in the know, chess can be a thrilling game. Each match between skilled players invokes the memories of ingenious grandmasters past. This adaptation of Stefan Zweig's The Chess Player, written and performed by Richard McElvain, only partially taps into that grand history.

Set in post-Anschluss Vienna, the audience bear witness to a Jewish lawyer using imaginary games of chess to try and stay sane while kept in solitary confinement. McElvain excels while portraying a man becoming possessed by this most ancient pastime. He reels off moves and quotes classic matches with a precision that can only be achieved through obsession.

Of course, obsession goes hand in hand with madness and here McElvain is less successful. The scenes of the protagonist's imprisonment are overlong, as McElvain uses repetition to try to convey the monotony of his character's life. Each day his character has conversations with the inanimate objects in his room. His bubbling mania becomes increasingly apparent even as the conversations slide into banality rather than terror: the point that isolation is a cruel hell is well made but McElvain squanders the revelation through over-emphasis.

Indulgence is the central problem in this performance. McElvain occasionally breaks character to address the audience about the trials he's been through to create this piece of theatre and draw parallels between himself and the titular chess player. Yet this idea is not given time for it to germinate. McElvain's performance is superb but can't quite rescue his script. There are too many concepts competing in so little space: the narrative is too loose, the pacing too monotonous, for it to provide the intensity the story deserves.

C primo, until 28 Aug, noon, £9.50–£10.50 (£7.50–£8.50).

The Chess Player

  • 2 stars

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