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The Machine/The Masque of Anarchy – review


Campfield Market Hall/Albert Hall, Manchester International festival

Like all the best festivals, the one in Manchester opens up the city. But while Alex Poots, the festival's director, says the Campfield Market Hall should "enhance" Matt Charman's new play about Gary Kasparov's chess contest with an IBM computer, I feel the big arena tends to overwhelm it. Josie Rourke's production uses the space brilliantly but inescapbly turns the play into a big spectacle.

Charman is adept at dramatising seemingly unsexy subjects. His 2009 play The Observer was a gripping look at the work of electoral scrutineers. Now, in The Machine, he turns an essentially static, six-match chess series, staged in New York in 1997, into lively theatre by dwelling on the obsessive nature of the participants. In the space of 41 scenes backtracking to 1973, Charman shows Kasparov's unstoppable rise to grandmaster with the aid of a determined mother who makes Judy Murray look like a shrinking violet. But Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu, the Taiwanese creator of IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, is equally a man in the grip of an overwhelming passion.

As a play, it combines the fascination of a sporting contest with the suggestion that both Kasparov and Hsu were the victims of a micro-managed marketing campaign and that the contest was rigged by adjustments to the computer programme. Rourke's production, with its swooping cameras and choreographed chess games, is a whirl of activity and boasts strong performances from Hadley Fraser and Kenneth Lee as Kasparov and Hsu, Francesca Annis as the former's iron-willed mum and Antonia Bernath as the latter's discarded girlfriend. Yet a play that should have left one pondering the capacity of machines to match and even overcome human ingenuity in the end becomes an arena extravaganza. It moves on next to Park Avenue Armory in New York, but one day I'd like to see it revived on a smaller scale.

For a perfect consonance between setting and subject, one has only to look to The Masque of Anarchy, Maxine Peake's sensational performance of Shelley's outraged poetic response to the Peterloo Massacre. The piece was presented in Albert Hall, a former Methodist chapel, only a few yards from where a crowd of demonstrators was brutally charged in 1819. But while the performance had extraordinary historical resonance, the impetus behind Sarah Frankcom's production and Peake's reading was to make this a poem for today. Clothed all in white, Peake seemed like a fiery angel as she fervently proclaimed "Such starvation cannot be as in England NOW we see." Given only four performances, the performance was a call to political action that positively demands to be repeated.

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