Review: 64 Squares by Rhum and Clay

64-squares2Rhum and Clay have been one of my favourite companies ever since I saw the amazing A Strange Wild Song a year and a half ago. Formed at the world-famous l’Ecole Internationale Jacques LeCoq by three students before they graduated, Rhum and Clay are supremely talented storytellers with a sense of the theatrical which employs any and every device possible to sweep its audience along with the story.

64 Squares, as you might guess from the title, is a play about chess … and so much more. Based on The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig, it tells the biographical tale of an Austrian Jewish accountant, interned by the Nazis after the Anschluss, who escaped from custody to exile in the USA. Zweig’s fascination with chess came from a single book, which he managed to steal during his solitary confinement, and which, disappointingly at first for him, turned out to be a move-by-move examination of great chess games in history. Desperate for something to break the boredom of his isolation, Zweig read and re-read the book until he began to appreciate and understand the game.

All of which sounds extremely dull for a piece of theatre but, in the masterful hands of Rhum and Clay, it becomes a fascinating whirlwind of a story that sweeps us along in its exuberance and lust for life. The cast are superb, and meld together seamlessly as an ensemble, despite the lack of original Rhum and Clay member, Christopher Harrison, who steps off the stage to write and direct the piece. He is replaced by Charlotte Dubery, whose physicality and huge range of facial expressions are a joy, as well as bringing a welcome diversity of gender to the stage.

Rhum and Clay core members, Julian Spooner and Matthew Wells are on top form, Spooner excelling particularly as the chess master, Czentovic, against whom Zweig tests his prowess on the long voyage to America. The cast of three is augmented by accomplished percussionist, Fred McLaren, who provides incidental music and sound effects throughout the piece.

64 Squares is very different to A Strange Wild Song in that it is much more text-based, but the company use their signature physicality to great effect to augment the narrative in a fluid and totally integrated way. The set design, by Amelia Hankin, is supremely versatile, consisting mainly of two scaffolding structures on wheels which become, variously, parts of the ship, interior and exterior, the prison cell, a hospital bed, an office and an interrogation room. The lighting design, by Geoff Hense, is also excellent, and makes good use of a minimal rig to evoke a wide range of settings.

My only disappointment with the piece was the less-than-satisfying narrative outcome of the chess game, with which the audience are teased throughout the show. But this is a true story, so I can’t really complain. A friend, who was at the performance with me, spoke afterwards of his frustration that the chess moves onstage were not those described in the narrative, but I discount this as a realistic gripe as I doubt many of the audience would appreciate, or even be able to see, the detail of the onstage board if they weren’t sitting in the front row of a very intimate venue, as we were.

All in all, 64 Squares is a triumph of theatre. I happily give it four stars and would thoroughly recommend it. Once more, the New Diorama have programmed one of the most exciting and satisfying shows currently performing in London, and it’s a shame that it’s only there for one week. But no doubt it will remain in Rhum and Clay’s repertoire for a while, so go and see it if you have a chance.

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