When two superpowers collide

Ronan with his castmate Robert Emm who plays Bobby Fischer

Actor Ronan Raftery tells David Hennessy about his new play about a high stakes chess match played between a Soviet and an American set in the Cold War era, returning to the stage and acting for Peter Jackson  

“When a story as iconic and famous comes across your desk, you’re just immediately interested to see how a playwright could adapt it,” Ronan Raftery tells The Irish World of his new play, Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer.

Set in 1972, the play is described as a psychological thriller that studies the events of what happened when Soviet world champion Boris Spassky took on American Bobby Fischer for the chess world championship. However with the Cold War still raging, the game of chess comes to mean much more than that with neither superpower wishing to concede anything to their bitter rival.

“I was initially really curious to see how Tom (Morton-Smith) our writer was going to focus in on certain aspects of it, which aspects of this opus were most interesting to him. You can’t do it all, you can write ten plays about this. Tom packs a lot of it into quite a tight script so it was brilliant.

“From the first page or two, you’re immediately in the setting, in the war. You feel the tension, the history, you’re aware of the situation all very, very quickly in this play. As soon as I started reading it, I knew it was something I would love to do.”

Directed by rising Irish director Annabelle Comyn, the tense political situation the play depicts makes you reflect now we are in uncertain times regarding Brexit: “The parallels are relevant and they’re there but we tend to keep our focus on our world, our play, our story and our characters.

“There are huge differences between what’s going on now and what was going on then. In many ways it’s polar opposite, this was a Cold War fought in silence. This chess game is a proxy war for two superpowers of the day.

“Nowadays politics is a much more front footed affair and people, particularly like Farage and Johnson, are less afraid to air their dirty laundry in public and in fact use that to their advantage. The whole idea of the Cold War, and certainly from the Soviet side of things, was very much keeping as much in-house as possible and putting what they feel is appropriate forward.”

Rocky 4 showed American boxer Rocky Balboa taking on Soviet Ivan Drago in a representation of the Cold War. How will Ronan and everyone else involved make a chess game look as exciting? “That’s obviously the first question that you have certainly as an actor but I think even as an audience member and as a writer. How do you make a chess game between two men sat at a table dramatic, dramatic enough to draw hundreds of people into that tiny chess board onstage?

“That’s kind of one of the most fun parts of rehearsal.  Annabelle has some very clear ideas that she started rehearsals with but we’re very much exploring that now. Because there’s 21 chess games in the tournament, we are showing all of those games in one way or another. We explore physicality, we explore a lot of lighting, there’s a lot of physical interaction between different characters and how that might represent a chess game. There’s music, there’s imagery, there’s a whole raft of theatrical devices that we are using to bring these chess games to life in a different way each time.

“Chess is such a clearer metaphor for a Cold War, for a proxy war. A boxing match or a football game where physical prowess is represented, that’s a much neater metaphor for a battle field. It was our good luck, the next generation, that chess is the sport that they used to fight this proxy war so the overlaps between a chess game and what was going on at the time are just astonishing.

“I think now a boxing match or mixed martial arts would be a better metaphor to describe what’s going on with this Brexit mess.”

Many will recognise Ronan from Moone Boy where he played choir leader Dessie. He was last seen on the London stage when he played the lead role in Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie at the National Theatre.

“I haven’t done a play for four or five years now. I had been actively looking to do a play because it had been so long and this one just came up at the right time. It was just a perfect storm really. I have wanted to work with Annabelle for ages so that was a huge part of the decision as well. I am a bit ‘grass is always greener’ when it comes to deciding which project to do next. You’re kind of on your own a lot when you’re filming depending on the project. I liked the idea of getting back into a rehearsal room with ten actors and a director and telling an entire story every night together as one company. But then if you’re doing a play for months and months, the idea of going back onto a film set and shooting a brand new scene every day is incredibly exciting as well.”

It was while acting in school that Ronan discovered it was something he had a passion for and it was somewhere he could fit in: “I found it difficult to make friends as a young child and then I did my first big play in school, Macbeth. I just loved staying late after school and rehearsing into the evening and ordering in food and being treated as an equal by much older students.

“There’s a very clear hierarchy amongst the years with older boys messing with younger boys particularly in an all-boys school. I found that those lines in the sand kind of vanished when we were doing a play together so aside from the fact that I loved doing it and I loved acting, I loved finding a space where I felt I could be myself personally as well.”

The last couple of years have seen him appear in high profile productions like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Peter Jackson written and produced Mortal Engines. He also played a lead role in supernatural series, The Rook.

Working with fellow Irish actor Robert Sheehan on Mortal Engines, the privilege it was and how well they both had done to get there wasn’t lost on them: “Robbie was down there before me but when I arrived, we certainly went out for a few pints and talked about the movie and how bizarre it was to be in Peter Jackson’s office talking about a script.

“You try not to let the occasion get in the way of the work. After particularly working on a project as big as that or Fantastic Beasts of the Harry Potter universe, you have to let go of the magnitude of the project and focus on the scene. Keep listening to your director, working with the actors and keep it small because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to open my mouth.

“You’re always looking for the next step. I don’t think I could ever rest on my laurels even if I had any laurels to rest upon. I don’t think that would sit well with me regardless. If I had ten Oscars, I think most actors are like that.”

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer is at Hampstead Theatre 29 November to 18 January. For more information, go to hampsteadtheatre.com.

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