Theatre Review: The Machine, Manchester Festival

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When the interval arrived during The Machine I realised I had been so engrossed by the play that I had forgotten to take a single note during the first half. A play about a chess match between a man and a computer, as its author Matt Charman, had conceded beforehand, sounded almost terrifyingly dull. But this was no ordinary man. It was Garry Kasparov, the youngest world chess champion ever, who reigned unchallenged for two decades. Nor was it an ordinary machine. It was Deep Blue, then the most sophisticated chess computer the world had ever seen, which could analyse more than 500 million positions every second.

But there was more to it, even that that.  Charman is no ordinary playwright, as his immensely compelling firecracker script revealed. And Josie Rourke, who masterminded the production, is no ordinary director, as was shown by her skilful pacing of the action, by turns fast and furious, and then dramatically braking into moments of unexpected poignancy.

The story centred on Kasparvov’s famous 1997 match against Deep Blue but it jumped back and forth chronologically in ways which added depth and irony. It flashed-back not just to scenes from the Russian champion’s career but also that of the Taiwanese computer whizz Feng Hsiung Hsu whose life’s work resulted in Deep Blue. This called for, and received, some remarkably supple and versatile acting from Hadley Fraser as the mercurial Kasparov and Kenneth Lee who oscillated brilliantly as Hsu between his days as an awkward geeky youth and the self-assured master of his computer field taking on the world’s greatest chess brain.

It was not without problems. The man versus machine motif was predictable. “Do it for us Garry,” hotel staff and others kept telling the Russian – the “us” being humankind. The politics were corny, as towards the end when Hsu says to Kasparov: “Don’t you get it: IBM played us both and they won”. And it seemed implausible that the golden girl pom-pom wielding cheerleader would ever have fallen for the nerdy emotionally-constipated Hsu.

But other stereotypes were handled with comic subtlety, like Phil Nichol’s cartoon caricature US TV anchor and Cornelius Booth’s Anatoly Karpov, the ex-chess champ and classic Soviet man in hock to the Russian political establishment. Francesca Annis conveyed the pain of real dilemmas as Kasparov’s driven mother Clara. The ending was wilfully and unsatisfactorily unresolved but the pace and grip of this theatrical thriller made for a memorable evening.

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