Richard McElvain’s performance of The Chess Player based on Stefan Zweig’s short novel is radical and respectful, frightening and enlightening – a good tale is being promised in the story which forms the framework on a cruise ship and we will not be disappointed. McElvain has not only adapted Zweig’s Schachnovelle, post-humously published in the early 1940s, he is also directing and plays every single character.
With the current chess world champion on board a cruise liner this game of kings is discussed everywhere and playing it is popular with the passengers. A certain Dr. B. sticks out of the amateurs with his exact predictions of chess draws but when being asked on his practice by a fellow traveller he claims he has not played for decades. Before a game against the champion on board is being arranged Dr.B. shares how he came to his ability – it is his life story of growing up in a banker family in Vienna, of him being captured by the Nazis not mainly for being a Jew, but for the contacts and knowledge he holds of the exclusive patronage. It is therefore not a prison he is brought to, it is a sparse hotel room. And here Dr. B. is being left alone. For days.
He tries but struggles more and more to keep a routine while being denied any stimulation – there is nothing but sparse interior which soon becomes Dr.B.’s mantra: A table, a chair, a washing basin, a bed, a window with bars. No reaction reaches him from outside, despite the silent, faceless delivery of food only loneliness surrounds him. For weeks.
We in the audience start fearing the klaxons, announcing nothing but the switch from day to night and so the interrogations – beginning after months in a room all by himself – perversely come almost as a relieve as they promise a different environment and at least some human interaction.
By then any feeling of time has been lost, any ability to pull a clear sentence together. Dr. B. does not know any more if he has given away information during the questioning, if he lied, gave secrets and people away or begged for freedom.
Then a book reaches him – a summary of the greatest chess parties in the world. Initially he cannot think of anything duller but then dust and bread crumbs assist replaying these matches. Time still does not exist and soon these props are no longer needed, the chess board is in Dr. B.’s head and for a while he is well entertained until every move of every stage of every game of every champion is studied by him and stuck in his head. But once everything is known by heart the scripts have no value anymore. Dr. B. reinvents the content by mixing the opponents endlessly, and lets new oppositions play against each other, all in his head.
McElvain’s performance of this frantic madness is haunting; his ability to not only switch between the characters on the cruise ship, the interrogators and the opponents Dr. B lets play against each other is mindblowing – he speaks as McElvain the actor to the audience, then as the director and is then back to the scenery. The most important prop is the soundscape which gives the stage so much more than a monodrama.
I read the Zweig around the same time Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Experiment (2001) came to the cinemas which was inspired by the Stanford-Prison experiments from 1971. Around the same time I also read The Baader Meinhof Complex (1985) by Stefan Aust about the ultra-left terror organization haunting 1970s West Germany – what was remarkable was the extensive description of the terrorists’s time and treatment in the Stammheim prison: The guerilla leaders committed suicide after having been isolated from each other for months. Decades of public debate followed: Fanaticism, escape or martyrium?
Fear is static, holding us back, we learn. Survival takes what it must and in total darkness (and therefore in total isolation especially) we start seeing our thoughts – but is madness a prize worth paying for it? The play ends with Dr. B. drinking the cyan-coloured liquid after a fit of lunacy during the match with the champion, years after his escape from imprisonment in isolation.
But then the audience’s applause is interrupted by McElvain (spontaneously? maybe) and he ends the story the way the novel ends: Dr. B. moves on.
Zweig did not grant himself what he allowed Dr. B., we are painfully reminded: Zweig and his wife poisoned themselves shortly after having sent off the manuscript of The Royal Game from his exile in Brazil, only half a year after having arrived from the US. He escaped Nazi-occupied Austria when he moved first to London, then Bath and became a British citizen – with the aggression coming closer he moved again, from New York to Argentina, then to Paraguay.
The loneliness of being a refugee once again was overpowering. Travelling had become a nerve racking process, even when he was not alone but with his spouse. He wrote that he would never ever have a home again, that the circumstances forced him to reduce himself to zero, forced him to forget who he had been initially. He claimed that books were what he missed the most. Then followed the realisation that solitude was no longer a relief or proof for the success of his escape but the cause for overwhelming depression. A book with famous chess matches brought Zweig distraction in Brazil at least for a bit.
McElvain points out Zweig’s key message and puts it in a modern context: Defining and living quality time. This piece of world literature deserves more attention. And this performance a far bigger audience. Bravo.
The Chess Player by Richard McElvain, based on The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig
Directed and played by Richard McElvain
Soundscape created by Larry Buckley
Performed in the OSO Arts Centre in 49 Station Rd, Barnes, London SW13 0LF. We paid £14 for each ticket.
The Chess Player continues touring through Europe and will be played again in London from November 13 to 17th at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden.