Friday, 7 November 2008

Culture Report With SpaceSquid

Went to see Chess last night, and am happy to report that I enjoyed myself immensely (even though they were all young and pretty and could sing and dance and thus I hate them and everything they stand for).

It was interesting to see some of the changes that had been worked in. It's not clear how much of this was specifically done by the troupe themselves (a few new song lines were sufficiently clunky to suggest Tim Rice was either not involved, or really bored that day), and how much of it was down to the bastardised hybrid that arose from the ashes of the West End and Broadway versions. Given the amount of time I wasted explaining why Chess is total genius, though, I figured I would mention how some of the changes affect the story.

The most interesting addition is a counterpart to Molokov, an equally scheming and jingoistic American whose name I don't remember but was something like De Corsi. This has the advantage of symmetry (I mentioned last time round that we didn't see enough of the American half of the Cold War rhetoric), and frees up the American from the political wrangling that was never really that convincing (sure, he wants Florence back and his former opponent to lose, but joining the Russians in their meta-game never entirely sat right). On the other hand, though, it sidelines the American in the second act, he simply becomes a washed-up player that no-one respects. His only real contribution to the proceedings post-interval is to let the Russian know of a potential flaw in Vitaly's game, which will allow the Russian to win.

This is bad for two reasons. First, the entire point of the American's character is that chess is the means by which he wins respect and adoration. The game itself is completely irrelevant. He as much as admits this when he describes the child he once was: "He could have all he ever wanted if he's prepared to pay". Chess isn't fun for him, it's the necessary payment for what he needs. Having some 11th hour revelation that chess is all that matters [1] completely violates that idea.

The other problem is that this idea weakens the Russian. For the Russian chess is important. It's critical. His only real ambition is to prove himself the best at the game he loves. When he defects to the West at the end of the first act, there is no suggestion that this is an ideological move (he admits he has no time for anything so petty as nationality), so much as the desire to escape the party men who constantly attempted to inject politics into his playing. In the original, there was never any doubt that he could defeat Vitaly, the choice was entirely his as to whether he would win for himself, or lose for Florence. You lessen that through the implication that he needed help.

Going back to the American for a moment, the poor guy was fairly badly done to throughout. The original character was fascinating, with insufferable arrogance and bellicose invective shielding low self-esteem and his desperate desire to be loved. His dismissive attitude towards and yet total reliance on Florence is part of that. No admission of his insecurity can be made without it being preceded by rage, and is inevitably shot through with self-justification. The man is a horrible mess of drives and needs and fears and self-hatred, and listening to him unravel over the second CD of the original album is genuinely affecting. In last night's show, though, he was almost one-dimensional, whining and ineffectual from the beginning. He was impossible to sympathise with, a great shame when making you feel for the guy was one of the triumphs of the original.

Finally, as predicted, the ending was somewhat less miserable than it once was, though still pretty morose. The only really important change is that having won, the Russian returns to the USSR, ensuring the Russians will give Florence what she wanted. I guess the idea is to show that whilst the Russian would never choose anything above his own success, he genuinely did love Florence enough to sacrifice himself once his victory was complete. The degree to which we should expect Florence to feel satisfied by this is debatable.

Anyway, if nothing else, if you get the chance to catch a musical at the Gala Theatre in Durham, I can recommend it. Them kids can sing.

[1] He also implies that he's the only person in the entire competition who seems to care about the game itself, which is both pretty laughable given his previous behaviour and another example of this particular version of the show constantly ramming home what is supposed to be subtext (however obvious): there are games within games within games. At various points all the main characters actually move as though puppets, controlled from above by the Chess Federation President, who herself moves like a terrifying clockwork mannequin. See what they've done? Everyone is being played, everything is a game, all of us are puppets. As though that wasn't obvious from the story already. Mind you, every time I complain something is depressingly obvious I find someone who didn't pick up on it (several of the people who came to see the show with me couldn't work out what the Hell that crazy spasming woman was doing. "Does she have some kind of degenerative disease?").

Update: I should also mention that it was good to see this performed without any eighties hair to distract me:

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