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Saturday, 13 July 2013

Theatre - The Machine - Manchester International Festival

Star rating - 8/10

A chess match does not perhaps make the most obvious subject matter for a play - but then The Machine by writer Matt Charman, is really about a power struggle; a battle of wills; two brilliant people pitted against each other. And it's also about the role technology and machines increasingly play in our lives, and in that respect it is very though provoking.

Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov and his battle against a computer in 1997 New York is the setting, although it feels more like an American football game with all its surrounding razzamatazz that gets the audience involved from the off. The cleverly designed set is both a giant television set for the contest, and also the setting for the flashbacks through the lives of both Kasparov, and the team who built the machine, Deep Blue. Everyone, including Kasparov himself thought he would beat the machine hands down, but the moment he realised that there were actually brilliant minds who had created Deep Blue, he was in for a battle royal.

Hadley Fraser is Kasparov, and Kenneth Lee plays Feng-Hsiung Hsu, the brains behind the giant computer. Their chess moves are at times more of a ballet, at times a gladiatorial contest, which is ingeniously staged by Director Josie Rourke from the Donmar Warehouse. Francesca Annis shows what a quality actor she is with her performance as Clara, Gary's mother, the driving force behind his success. There is a large cast with incredibly technical lines, not to mention chess moves, to memorise, but they pull it off with panache.

The setting, the wonderful Campfield Market Hall, is a real hidden gem, and although on another sultry summer evening it's lack of air conditioning and temporary seating do not make for  the most comfortable of environments, the drama more than makes up for any passing inconvenience. The play goes on to New York after the Manchester International Festival, and I hope they find it just as engrossing and thrilling as the Manchester audiences clearly have. 

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