In February 2010 it was announced that a new touring production of Chess would be directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood. Most famous for his judging role on British television show Strictly Come Dancing, Horwood was an experienced dancer and director and had in fact directed the Danish production of Chess in 2001.
Craig Revel Horwood: We had a massive chorus and all the principals were flown over from the UK. I’ve always wanted to do it again - the music is just fantastic and it’s really intelligently written.
This new production was to be produced by Michael Harrison, who had previously produced revival UK touring productions of several West End shows including Witches of Eastwick and Aspects of Love. The production would have its premiere at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle and then embark on an substantial twenty-five venue tour of the UK. A European date was later added to the end of the tour, with a week at the Politeama Rossetti theatre in Trieste, Italy. After a summer break the company headed to Canada for a five week stay at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. Most of the original cast returned to the production for the Toronto dates, but Danial Koek and Poppy Tierney had other engagements and their roles were taken by Tam Mutu and Rebecca Lock. On their final date in the UK on the 9th April 2011 at Glasgow's Theatre Royal, the cast had a special guest in the audience when Benny Andersson came to see the show.
The script used would closely follow Tim Rice’s 'definitive' version, which had been presented in the Royal Albert Hall concerts a couple of years earlier, but with a completely new look. Featuring 'The very latest in computer-generated scenery and an amazing LED chess board.'and a production budget of £500,000 it sounded like this was going to be a very interesting development in the history of Chess.
This new production was to retain some design elements of Horwood’s Danish production, but would have a very different orchestral presentation. It was to be an actor-musician production, meaning the cast would also be the orchestra, playing their instruments while also acting and dancing onstage. It was an interesting proposition and one which many fans waited for with great anticipation, while others who were worried about what effect this would have on the beautiful orchestrations were not so sure. Tim Rice had originally been reluctant to revisit the piece when he was first approached, but later when the idea to stage it as an actor-musician production was suggested, his interest was piqued, in fact he was 'fascinated' by this new concept and discussions began to see how it could be done.
Michael Harrison: I said to Craig, is there anything we can do with what you do with actor-musicians, and what Tim wants? And madly, one day I suggested looking at doing it with 30 people. We could have five principals who don't play instruments, and then have all the chess pieces as musicians.
Craig Revel Horwood: We normally work with a team of around 12 people, but this time we've got 30. That means we can do a full orchestration - and actually do it bigger and better than if we had an orchestra, because you would never get 30 people in the pit! But what we’re working on this time is to do it big - but still make it feel intimate and tell the story through the instruments and the music, as we always do. I’ve got the orchestra as chess pieces who play and react to the story that evolves within the space. So I’m using the chess pieces as a Greek chorus, if you like, to comment on these people’s emotions. Yes, it’s stylised but it’s also a battleground which is the whole point that the musical is trying to make. So I’m trying to supply high-headed operatic staging and emotion to all those lush scenes that the music supplies.
The show was billed as 'The Legendary West End and Broadway Musical' and 'The must-see theatrical event of the year!'. Initially images of Tim, Bjorn, Benny and Craig Revel Horwood himself were used for all publicity material.
Rehearsals began in Kennington, London on 19th July, the entire company later moved up to Newcastle towards the end of August for a week of technical rehearsals in the theatre.
Michael Harrison: The hardest thing for every actor in there is to get the score completely in their head because it is such a heavy musical, it is almost completely sung right the way through so it has to be treated in an operatic way in that respect. Generally most orchestras have the dots in front of them in a pit so they just read it. But our company has to learn not only the singing the acting and the dancing but the entire score off by heart. One would think it is impossible, but I’m always amazed how they can remember it all.
Craig Revel Horwood: I am going to try to make it as feisty as I can – all the characters are larger than life, it’s two women wanting to scratch each other’s eyes out. This really is a bitch fight to the bitter end. One woman who has been cheated on wants her husband back and flies halfway round the world to drag him back screaming. The chess games only screw up because of these relationships.
The basic set was somewhat reminiscent of the original London design complete with what could be called an under lit chess board, but which was in fact really an LED screen that could depict various lighting effects and images. This could replicate the kind of moving square sequences as had been seen in London, though the board was substantially smaller, had only 25 'squares' and was static. Upstage was an additional bank of LED screens, fitted on two sliders, allowing them to slide open for entrances and exits. Like London, the screens could show one massive image, or a number of smaller ones, either of live onstage or pre-recorded footage. Here again there were echoes of what Michael Bennett may have been contemplating. When you add the fact that the chorus were constantly moving or dancing about the stage, you could begin to imagine some of what Michael's production might have looked like. There was practically no stage furniture, only the chess table and chairs were realistic, with clear plastic cubes being used to represent chairs and beds. A row of plastic stools lined either side of the stage, white on one side and black on the other, these being used by the chorus while not 'on stage'.
The costumes were more or less the same as those from the 2001 Danish production, with the chorus dressed to represent the various chess pieces of a very modern set. Pawns wore black or white suits somewhat reminiscent of Victorian police uniforms, while the kings and queens were clad in sumptuous furs, feathers, lace and diamonds - the queens having quite a lot of lingerie on show. The knights were endowed with beautiful tails and plastic horse heads - attached to their caps. The Arbiter wore a long black leather coat over a bare torso and black trousers throughout the show. Generally the chorus costumes shared some elements of bondage or fetish wear and this sexual undertone was certainly purposefully highlighted by many of the directorial decisions.
The structure of the story was basically the same as the Royal Albert Hall concerts, with just a few small changes to song location and lyrics. The setting was 1979 with the first match taking place on March 24th - three days earlier than in the concert for some reason.
Merano was originally included, but cut during the final dress rehearsal. By all accounts this was going to be a joyous opening to the show with quite a lot of dancing and even a goat milking scene, but to reduce running time it was decided that it should be cut.
Molokov and Florence was staged as if in a boxing ring, complete with number cards indicating the 'round' of the fight being held in the air at ‘breaks’ in the dialogue. This was an amusing scene, but the potency of what Florence was saying did get completely overshadowed by the comic staging.
Pity the Child was kept in the original London position of Act One, rather than the concert and concept album location of Act Two. A Piece of Pity came in Act Two just after The Deal.
You and I at the end of the show was unbelievably and unforgivably cut to just the final verse, starting at "You could not give me..." This greatly reduced the emotional impact of the scene, removing most of what should be expressed at this point of the story, their story! It also came as a bit of a shock (though an interesting one) when the final "Stories like ours…" was sung by Anatoly to Svetlana, as he took her hand, kissed her and left the stage. Evidently they were heading back to Russia as a 'loving' couple, though Svetlana did look rather uncertain about the chances of the promised happy ending.
There were many endearing little touches during the show, such as during Embassy Lament when an accordion set on its back is used to represent a typewriter and when a glockenspiel is used to represent 'papers' with an embassy worker pointing out various keys on the instrument and Anatoly striking these with the hammer as if 'signing his name' in the appropriate places.
The production itself was without doubt a spectacular piece of staging. The video wizardry, elaborate lighting, beautiful costumes and fascinating chorus of ever present 'chess pieces' made for the most exciting incarnation of Chess that had been seen since the London premier. Admittedly the glitz and spectacle did sometimes overshadow and drown out the basic story, which is always a danger when technical opulence is allowed to dominate. The performances were superb, with strong and engaging vocals from all the lead players. The actor-musician concept seemed to work perfectly for the show and more importantly the music. It certainly didn't feel scaled down, though obviously it was a modified score, this was not immediately apparent - at least not to the average ear. It was fascinating to watch the chorus play a wide range of different instruments and in all sorts of positions - dancing, marching, lying on the floor! They were on stage the whole time, sometimes discreetly playing their music as they sat on their stools at either side of the stage, sometimes interacting with the lead characters and sometimes taking over the entire stage for numbers such as Merchandisers, The Arbiter and The Soviet Machine.
The continuous movement during a majority of the scenes created a fast paced production, but could sometimes be at the detriment of the story. Often some elements of the plot and the emotions of the scene got lost among the frenetic action onstage. As a piece of visual theatre though, it was well beyond what had been seen in the UK touring circuit for quite some time, if ever. At times, it had the feel of a rock concert, but wasn't that what parts of the show were? It was a kind of rock opera after all, so perhaps this was partly what the piece needed, but maybe it also needed some quieter more intimate and engaging moments. It certainly looked and felt like a West End show and not a cheap touring production, surely it was destined for a West End transfer when it came to the end of its UK tour, but what would the critics say?
It opened to a generally mixed set of reviews. Some were ecstatic and praised every element of the production, while others, although impressed by the ensemble were disappointed by the lack of storytelling. There were many mentions of the loudness of the sound mix and the difficulty of being able to hear the lyrics. There certainly were some sound issues, but these usually settled down, or at least improved after the first couple of performances in each venue. It was a difficult show to mix, with the fact that the microphones were having to pick up vocals and instruments from basically the same source. Others felt the heightened sexual undercurrent (or indeed at sometimes overtly sexual elements) did little for the show as a whole and in most cases weakened an already thin plot and characters. These extra layers certainly made a great number of the plot elements fuzzy and difficult to follow.
Word of mouth was equally mixed. This Chess was either going to be loved or loathed. It was not the staple diet of the average provincial theatre goer, this was something different, something not often seen outside of London. Perhaps it was a shock of the unfamiliar, but it proved too much for many regular theatre goers, with many walking out at the interval, or if they did endure the whole show, making it perfectly clear they had not enjoyed the experience. It seemed to be a combination of the loudness of the sound, the adult nature of many of the sexualised elements and a general inability to hear the lyrics or be able to engage with the characters and story. With these difficulties, it seemed Chess had little left to recommend it. Still, it did fairly good business around the country and on the whole audiences seemed to enjoy it. Surely they couldn't all be 'just being polite' by applauding loudly at the end? Most seemed to appreciate the skills of the chorus and performers even if they didn't always enjoy the vehicle they were in. One Night in Bangkok was unsurprisingly the scene that caused the most raised eyebrows! There seemed little to be offended about, unless gyrating men in hot pants and girls in skimpy bikini costumes are deemed particularly offensive, but none the less the scene was tamed down a bit for the matinee performances and even the evening version was reportedly not quite as raunchy as originally imagined.
Without doubt, this production did divide opinion and there were certainly some bewildering and unclear directorial elements to the show. The characters did lose some sympathy due to the inability to really get to know them, perhaps the over stylised staging created a barrier between character and audience that just could not be overcome during the few quieter and intimate moments. There was a slight feeling that the whole thing was taking part at a very upmarket sex party rather than a chess championship - quite a juxtaposition! Although it had been stated that this production would pay more attention to the love story, it did seem to be overly interested in depicting the sexual side of the relationships rather than the actual love and emotions.
For those who were already familiar with Chess, this production presented a whole new and exciting world for the score to exist in, but for those who didn't know the plot it seemed to keep them at arms length and prevented them from engaging with it or appreciating the wonderful score.
The overuse of the video screens often distracted and pulled attention away from the characters on the stage. This was especially annoying when huge head shots of the live stage action was shown on the massive screens. No actor could compete with this and so attention shifted to the screens and important lyrics or meaning were missed.
With the characters constantly moving around the stage and no realistic furniture for them to sit on - often resorting to sitting unnaturally on the stage floor, they seemed dehumanised and distant. This also often made the characters (or the actors) look uncomfortable and unnatural in their movements. The individual songs, though always perfectly performed and interesting pieces of theatre, sometimes felt detached from the whole and it was not always clear why they were happening or how they were connected to or developed the plot - a common problem with Chess.
The production certainly created more questions about the plot and the characters than it answered:
Freddie’s character now seemed to be tinged with the threat or possible past history of physical abuse towards Florence, making him even less likeable than ever before!
Walter was portrayed as a bit of an bumbling idiot rather than a professional TV reporter and the character became fairly pointless. In his numerous pieces to camera he sounded like he had never appeared on TV in his life! This made these scenes tedious and unbelievable.
The movement and dancing of the chess pieces also distracted from the core meaning in some scenes and often obliterated what was happening upstage, especially between Freddie and Anatoly during Chess 1, preventing any understanding as to why the pieces got thrown to the floor!
During the TV Interview Freddie smeared his lips with red lipstick, why? It could have many meanings, but none of them were needed and it seemed strange to add extra context here which only caused confusion.
Obviously all these directorial decisions could be justified one way or another, but they didn't seem to improve the scenes, almost always they made them weaker. Perhaps with some more thought being given to the core of the story and less emphasis to the look of each scene the two could have been very nicely blended. Many, many right moves were made, but perhaps a few too many carless ones too. As it is, this Chess will always be viewed as an extremely exciting production, but never a particularly dramatic one.