In 1972, the world chess championship became a proxy battlefront in the rumbling belligerence of the cold war. Recounting the gruelling, 21-game clash, Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer is a taut and cerebral character study.
If author Tom Morton-Smith tells the tale with deep, occasionally dry detail, director Annabelle Comyn’s muscular staging injects it with energy, punctuating key scenes with arresting movement work that effectively dramatises the unfolding matches. Chairs are aggressively swivelled, glasses of orange juice are competitively consumed in brief but breathless stylised dances.
Despite a few wandering accents, the large supporting cast successfully fills out the grand scope of the story, providing perspectives from the players’ entourages of psychologists, handlers and hangers-on. Solomon Israel plays a memorably Machiavellian Henry Kissinger, while Gary Shelford adds deadpan levity as softly spoken Icelandic policeman Saemi-Rokk.
Controversial challenger Bobby Fischer comes off badly: an arrogant, infantile diva, simultaneously paranoid and entitled. Robert Emms plays the part with extraordinary ferocity, stamping about the space alternately gloating, throwing tantrums or railing violently against life’s unfairness.
On the other side of the board, Ronan Raftery starts out calm and dignified as defending champion Boris Spassky, determined but ultimately unable to stay above the political quagmire.
Jamie Vartan’s set captures the period with a few impeccable design choices, all beige upholstery and round-edged, walnut-veneered furniture. A cluster of boxy grey TV sets keep score as the tournament wears on, the screens clouding with static to underline the palpably building tension.