On Saturday May 19th 2018 the day Prince Harry married Meghan Markle; I saw an ENO production of Chess and witnessed a very different, intriguing kind of love story portrayed on the London Coliseum stage. Four people caught up in a maelstrom of emotion bound together and/or torn apart by the demands of East/West political neuroses and the game of chess. The performance was spell-binding, thought provoking and a joy to watch and I felt privileged to be in the audience.
In the first act Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball) travels to Merano Italy for the World Chess Federation Championship, where he is to face American champion Frederick Trumper (Tim Howar). The differing nature of both men’s countries was brilliantly portrayed at the opening ceremony, contrasting between the regimented goose stepping military display from the Russian delegation, to the freedom loving, casual, and commercialised pom-pom wielding cheerleaders of the US. As the battle commenced between the chess players the East/West backdrop of history was cleverly depicted through video montage, chronicling the political statesmen behind the scenes who shaped their countries foreign policy from the beginnings of the Cold War. Successive historical events appeared in the narrative (Sputnik, Cuba Missile Crisis, Man on the Moon, Afghanistan invasion by Russia) and thus the chess showdown progressed between Anatoly and Freddie. The American eventually conceded victory to his Russian counterpart, and then promptly announced his retirement from the game. Both men had strained relations with their seconds (US-Florence, Russia-Molokov), and I don’t doubt this played a factor in Sergievsky defecting and seeking asylum in the West, after his victory was secured. Florence (Cassidy Janson) disgusted at Trumper’s manipulative & violent behaviour runs from her American lover, into the compassionate arms of the Russian and helps him negotiate the trials of Western burocracy.
Back in Moscow Svetlana Sergievsky (Alexandra Burke) hears of her husband’s defection plan through a TV news report. Her lament “Someone Else’s Story” was heartbreaking and Burke’s emotive performance truly expressed a woman subsumed by events beyond her control or understanding. Meanwhile back in the West, the eccentricities of the British foreign office/civil service were amusingly depicted by a scene where dark suited men in bowler hats and wielding brollies, sang and danced a number called “Embassy Lament”. This was reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance Policeman’s Song. Video montages of documents with endless words, several heavily underlined, all stamped “pending” “not approved” formed the backdrop (nothing has changed there). A press conference is held to announce the Russian’s defection and when challenged Anatoly silences his critics with the thunderous “Anthem” which brought the first half to a climatic finish. Michael Ball’s rendition was sensational and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end.
When the second act begins a year has passed, Anatoly and Florence are lovers and the World Federation Chess Championship is due to commence in Bangkok Thailand. Molokov has trained a new chess protégé Leonid Viigand to challenge Sergievsky the reigning champion. He has also persuaded Svetlana to travel to Bangkok with her son to confront her estranged husband. Freddie now a TV commentator experiences the delights of “One Night in Bangkok” and discovers from Molokov that Florence’s father long believed dead (at the hands of the Soviets) is alive, but has suffered for decades imprisonment in Russia. Molokov (Phillip Browne) hopes this news, and Svetlana’s arrival in the Orient will be enough to blackmail Anatoly into throwing the game, even though he seems supremely confident in his young protégé when singing “The Soviet Machine”. There were some very deep resonant notes in this song which hinted at a brooding menace, and Browne carried them off superbly. This scene struck me as being very similar in style to one in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye agrees to his daughter marrying the butcher. The men drink a toast to the arrangement (which falls through) and Russians in the bar drink and dance in merriment of the occasion. Nothing works out quite the way it was supposed to in Fiddler, and I suspected the same was going to happen here.
Freddie interviews Anatoly for his TV network, but throws him off guard by announcing that Svetlana is to join them. Anatoly storms off to join Florence off-camera where a heated confrontation occurs, with the Russian emphatically stating “NOTHING must get in the way of my winning the game. I will deal with this other stuff later”. Charming I thought as Anatoly stomped off like a spoiled child, leaving Florence alone to face witnessing Freddie interview Svetlana. The sheer brilliance of the staging for “I Know Him So Well” was breathtaking, as both Cassidy Janson & Alexandra Burke performed this heart rending duet. The video montage juxtaposed both their images together, two women expressing very individual interpretations of their love for the same man, fused together like one heart beating, yet separate entities sharing the same confusion, hope and despair. I was mesmerised by these two extraordinary women, felt oddly empowered, yet was desperately fighting back the tears as well. AMAZING and quite rightly the song received rapturous applause for a couple of minutes afterwards.
Svetlana (under Molokov’s influence) implores her estranged husband to lose the chess match for the sake of their son; life would be made difficult if he didn’t comply. Freddie (colluding with Molokov) tells Florence her father is alive and will be freed from prison if Anatoly forfeits the game. But neither Florence nor Anatoly agree to any match fixing and Freddie is left alone with his thoughts. An apparent mental breakdown seems to occur in Trumper through the utterly devastating “Pity the Child”, which was met by thunderous applause. The tears of Tim Howar seemed totally real as the actor immersed himself into his character’s troubled childhood, and effectively expressed Freddie Trumper’s love of chess as the saviour of his soul. After this redemptive moment Freddie leaves Sergievsky with some tips on how to beat Leonid Viigand, having spotted a weakness in his game.
As the tournament begins there is almost an Ode to Chess as previous world champions’ names are honoured. Tightly fought matches occur between Anatoly and Leonid and with the score at 5-5, a wonderful four way harmony “Endgame” sung by Freddie, Florence, Svetlana and Molokov heralds the decider where Anatoly gets checkmate. He retains his world title and dignity, maintains the honour of the game, but relinquishes his love for Florence and his political asylum. Sergievsky decides to return to his motherland having made an agreement with Molokov, that in return Florence’s father will be released from prison in Russia. Anatoly realises he’s a pawn in a far bigger game, but sacrifices himself in order for Florence to be reunited with her father. Throughout the story this deep rooted issue has haunted her, but now she can gain peace by the Russian’s grand expression of total love. The final scene finds Anatoly & Florence sadly acknowledge their time together is at an end as they sing “You and I”. What an incredible love story portrayed in such an innovative way.
The casting was superb, the singing and orchestration sublime and the setting in London’s Coliseum stunning. And I particularly appreciated the video graphics at either side of the stage, which enabled the audience to see the main characters up close. This was a revelation, particularly seeing the illuminating facial expressions of Alexandra Burke which gave her solos a whole new meaning. But the over-riding feeling I had as the show ended was just how brilliant the music was. I only knew two songs in the production “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well, although I wasn’t fully aware of their context in the storyline. Everything else was totally new to me, and I marvelled at the sheer genius of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, although Rice really worked on the lyrics side, which in themselves are clever and poignant.
During the chess competition between Trumper and Sergievsky the music sounded so distinctly Russian in style, you would have thought it came from a composer like Borodin. Yet the Merano bar entertainment sounded like original European alpine music, the foreign office British interlude was perfect, whilst the soundscape of Bangkok seemed so authentic you would swear it emerged from the Orient. And the two main composers of this smorgasbord of music styles are Swedish! Being a huge ABBA fan I always knew how clever Benny and Bjorn are, but Chess exhibits their true genius beautifully. Of course Andersson and Ulvaeus background in the pop genre meant the razzmatazz of American popular music was easy to achieve. But I thought a perfect blend of Russian and American influences was cleverly created in the character of the chess judge Arbiter (Cedric Neal). The depth of some notes this actor had to achieve was phenomenal and rather like American Paul Robeson in style. Yet at other times a truly classical Russian delivery was evident to my ears, and the range of notes produced were positively operatic. Neal managed this difficult task with aplomb. And I couldn’t help but chuckle, as I thought his character came across as a Jay Leno TV larger than life persona, mixed with pure unadulterated Oprah Winfrey charisma. What a combination.