By Christopher Harrison
HOME, 10 October 2016
Life imitates chess.
When Dr B. is arrested by the Gestapo and held in solitary confinement he reaches out for any kind of distraction, any kind of intellectual sustenance. He finds it in a curious book, a collection of great chess games pilfered from a guard. Chess saves his soul, or at any rate transforms it.
64 Squares is an intense, electrifying adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s Die Schachnovelle. It uses all the munificent resources of theatre – acting that is both brilliantly paced and precisely synchronised, precarious dance of the kind to be found in Cafe Muller, shadow-play, rhythm and music – to convey the fragmentation of Dr B’s personality. You are not simply told Dr B’s story, you experience it.
Those familiar with Zweig’s work will walk away satisfied, while the play is accessible enough to appeal to non-chessplayers. Though that’s not to say that certain smart aleck chessplayers won’t find added significance in the play, and may even feel inclined to point out that the supposed Capablanca- Czentovic game is based upon Anderssen-Paulsen, Vienna 1873. But somebody else got there first.
My only real gripe is that the invasion of Austria by Germany is described as an annexation, a term which perpetuates the myth that Austria was the so-called first victim of Nazi aggression. In fact, the Nazis were cheered as they entered Zweig’s home country. And those hundreds of thousands of ordinary Austrians massed in the Heldenplatz, giving the Nazi salute as Hitler announced the Anschluss, they were hardly there under duress.
This is a rich and rewarding play – and you realise at the end that it is, in a sense, a survivor’s narrative. It is especially poignant, therefore, to recall that Zweig himself did not survive: Schachnovelle was published shortly before his death.