The Machine - Chess Play Premiere in Manchester; Hadley Fraser as Garry Kasparov
It isn’t so much man versus machine as man versus the man behind the machine. Famously, in 1997 the Russian chess grandmaster and world champion Garry Kasparov faced IBM's supercomputer RS/600SP, known as Deep Blue, in New York City. But behind the faceless machine was another genius, its Taiwan-born architect Dr Fen Hsiung Hsu. Both had much at stake – and not just a game of chess. Kasparov sought undisputed supremacy in the face of an opponent programmed – and reprogrammed between games – by a team of scientists and chess experts. Hsu sought to fulfil a computer scientist’s dream. And IBM sought supremacy for commercial gain.
Having won the first six-game match in Philadelphia in 1996, the 34-year-old Kasparov confidently proposed the re-match. It was a close-run thing, but he lost, thus becoming the first grandmaster to lose against a computer under standard time controls. And he convinced himself that the opposition had cheated. The drama of the match itself, with all that human brain power being stretched amidst the media and corporate hype, was compelling in itself, but writer Matt Charman has penetrated beyond this into the minds of the men – and, to a certain extent, the women behind them.
Inside the vast Victorian Campfield Market Hall, The Machine is set in a large TV studio, with steep, raked seating on four sides and the chess table in the centre. We prepare to witness a slugging match televised live. But, as it turns out, we don’t. Certainly, Charman uses the game in short snatches (nothing more boring than watching two chaps play chess, after all), but intercuts it with parallel flashbacks tracing, on the one hand, Kasparov’s development from a chess-obsessed boyhood driven by his widowed mother and, on the other, Hsu’s development as a computer-obsessed student at Carnegie Mellon (pictured above right, Kenneth Lee as Hsu)
This is all very well, but it does lead to periods of tedium. Some of the geek-chat with fellow students put me in mind of one of those sci-fi spaceship TV serials as the men exchange techno-babble. But then I’m not a computer type. And I don’t play chess, so a lot of the overblown “live” TV commentary, with a grandmaster pundit inputting the technical stuff, left me cold.
As Kasparov, Hadley Fraser captures the champ’s focus, passion, confidence (until he loses) and physicality – he is apt to pace around between moves. Francesca Annis (pictured above left) is elegantly feisty as his pushy and protective mother Clara, who can’t be doing with all media hype. Kenneth Lee convinces as Hsu, the single-minded research scientist.
Charman packs a lot in, but the dramatic effect is diminished by the triple-track treatment. What does come across is the clash of personalities and the fact that the only winner is the big corporation.
The Machine at Campfield Market Hall from 10 to 21 July. The world premiere production is part of Manchester International Festival. The production transfers to the Park Avenue Armory, New York from 4 to 18 September
From Alexandra Kosteniuk's
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