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The Machine, Manchester International Festival

Published by: Caroline May on 17th Jul 2013 | View all blogs by Caroline May
The Machine. Photo by Helen Maybanks 12.jpg

Writer Matt Charman’s programme note apologises for the potential tedium of a play about chess.  In fact the game, while apparently the least promising of dramatic subjects, has a long history on the stage.  As far back as the 1620s Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess satirised the court of James I, while the Tim Rice musical Chess dealt with love reaching a stalemate during the Cold War.

Following World War II the chess board became a (thankfully nuclear-free) battlefield where Eastern Communism and Western Democracy vied for supremacy in increasingly high-profile matches.  However by the early Eighties the Soviet government found its world chess domination being threatened from within: their champion Anatoly Karpov was facing strong opposition from a young outsider called Garry Kasparov.

When Glasnost arrived later that decade Kasparov was already the best player on earth, but now there was a fresh challenger for his crown: the computer.  In 1997 Kasparov played IBM’s Deep Blue machine over a series of six games which were seen as a landmark in the history of artificial intelligence - a human brain pitted against an electronic brain across a chess board.

The Machine is a “fictional account inspired by true events”, so you’re never entirely sure what is fact and what is artistic licence.  The chronology flashes back and forwards: Kasparov’s journey from child prodigy to undisputed world champion is counter-pointed with the Deep Blue team’s metamorphosis from rooky computer science students to wily businessmen. 

Hadley Fraser is not only the spitting image of Garry Kasparov but exudes the charisma and passion that made Kasparov into an unlikely global hero.  His intense and fraught relationship with mother and mentor Clara (Francesca Annis) inevitably brings up parallels with Andy and Judy Murray.

However it is Deep Blue’s developer Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), a computer nerd obsessed with success at all costs, who is by far the most fascinating character.

Matt Charman was being disingenuous about his choice of subject matter, but it was always going to be difficult to translate intense mental conflict into staged action and to make chess accessible to a non-specialist audience.  However director Josie Rourke has mounted an Enron-style all-singing, all-dancing production which transforms the huge space of Campfield Market Hall into a four-sided arena focussed tightly on a central combat zone, like a brain-box version of Madison Square Gardens.  The Deep Blue/Kasparov contest has the razzmatazz of the Superbowl final, down to the cheesy anchorman and rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.  TV cameras scud around the stage relaying close ups of the action to large screens suspended above the actors, while Jonathan Watkins choreographs chorus lines of chess boards and computer terminals, and turns the chess match into a stylised table-top dance.

The Machine

With strong storylines, fascinating characters and spectacular staging, The Machine has all the action and thrills that any keen sports fan would expect and any theatregoer could usually only dream of.

Until Sunday 31 July
Box Office: 0161 236 7110


1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 5 years ago
    Great review, Caroline. This is another intriguing production at MIF! Manchester is the place to be at the moment. Many thanks.
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