The Machine

The Machine

A play about chess and computers doesn’t, on the face of it, sound as if it would provide much potential for nailbiting drama. But those who decided on these grounds to give The Machine a miss should be kicking themselves. It’s a gripping piece of theatre, brilliantly written and featuring outstanding performances from the two leads.

Running for 11 nights at the Manchester International Festival before it transfers to New York, The Machine focuses on the famous 1997 six-game chess match between the charismatic Russian Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue, designed by Taiwanese computer scientist Feng-hsiung Hsu. With the audience playing the role of the studio audience for the televised show-down, the action begins with the first game, and we return to the match repeatedly throughout the play, alternating with perfectly paced flashbacks that explore each man’s past and the immense personal and emotional sacrifices each made in the build-up to the historic contest.

Hadley Fraser is stunningly good as Kasparov, outwardly arrogant but inwardly hurt by his own country’s ambivalence towards him and confused by his difficult relationship with his pushy mother. Anyone who has ever seen TV footage of Kasparov will realise just how perfectly Fraser has acquired his mannerisms, both at and away from the chess board. Kenneth Lee is also excellent as Hsu, affably nerdy and naïve at first, but increasingly obsessive and driven. It’s impossible to watch the drama unfold without wanting to take sides in what becomes an epic battle (which could easily be billed as Man v Machine but is in fact, very much one man versus another) and such is the skill of not just the actors but also the writers that it’s equally impossible to come down firmly on one side or the other. At first, Hsu is much the more likeable character, but as the story unfolds, Kasparov’s vulnerabilities are brought to the fore and our sympathies start to switch back and forth. Are they really so different? Or are they simply two sides of the same coin?

The rest of the cast is also impressive, particularly Francesca Annis as Kasparov’s protective mother. Even Deep Blue, the mostly unseen chess computer, seems to become a supporting character in its own right – fittingly, given the artificial intelligence theme.

Performed in the round in the Campfield Market Hall, adjacent to the Museum of Science and Industry, the machine makes clever use of big screens that not only make the chess scenes more  engaging but also help to make us feel part of a world gradually taken over by technology – it seems the perfect production for an arts festival based in a city that’s a centre of innovation and technology and, thanks to Alan Turing, the birthplace of modern computing. Matt Charman’s script and Josie Rourke’s direction give the production clever variation in pace and mood that help to grip the audience from the start. There’s also a pleasant nostalgia to the story: who would imagine today that as recently as 1997, chess and its leading players were regularly making the news headlines and a series of televised games drew huge worldwide audiences, or that the Cold War was once played out through oddly symbolic encounters between American and Soviet grand masters?

The Machine deserves a wider audience, and it will be interesting to see whether it returns to the UK after its New York run. If it does, make sure you’re first in line for tickets.

Joanne Shepard

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