St John’s are nice guys. What is so odd about this production of Chess is the contrast between the Cold-War-chess-match-turned-love-triangle tension portrayed on stage and the sense of camaraderie between the team off in the wings and down in the seats below as they rehearse. Third-year producer Francis Goodburn tells me it is his ‘good-bye to St John’s’ and you can tell from the atmosphere in the air that this is very much a collegiate affair, just as much as it is Goodburn’s personal adventure. At one point he announced that they will be rehearsing Florence and Anatoly’s first kiss, which precedes to unfold awkwardly on stage to the accompanying giggles and wolf-whistles from their friends/co-actors watching.
While the Cold-war setting of the play is an undeniable dimension, as is the fact that the story revolves around, yes, playing chess, the play is actually dominated by scenes between the three thwarted lovers as they each come to terms with their own romantic and familial dilemmas. Director Will Law says that while the Russo-American political tension is ‘omnipresent’, in fact it only serves as the cause for the situations that the characters find themselves in. The focus here is much closer, more intimate.
That being said, I found while sitting in the back rows that the acting was fairly stiff; the lovers having to be almost pushed together by the director in order to make some physical contact. But the play was in its early stages yet, and actually the physical distance between the actors on stage created an interesting sense of the isolation each was truly in as they contemplated what move to make next in the pursuit of their own desires. Anyway, what was lacking in the acting was made up for tenfold in the quality of the music. It is clear that Goodburn runs a tight, harmonious ship on this count; with the soaring vocals of Bethany Nixon’s Florence worth special mention.
So, is there any point in making the journey through St John’s labyrinthine grounds to the auditorium if you aren’t a member of their college? As I ask Law and assistant producer Emma Recknall this final question, they bounce answers off of each other in a whirlwind of enthused recommendations, coming up with answers ranging from its classic score to the eclectic nature of its plot and setting. What I’m left with though is the overwhelming sense of energy and passion that has gone into the making of Chess; something that I am in no doubt will rub off on you too come 4th week.
PHOTO/SJC Musical Theatre Society
13-15 February, 7pm, St John’s College Auditorium
Tickets available from the College lodge and on www.wegottickets.com (search Chess the Musical Oxford) at £7 for students, £6 for college members and £8 for general public.