On 24th Feb 1942 The New York Times reported on their front page the death of an Austrian playwright, journalist and novelist Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte Altmann. They had been found holding hands after taking an overdose of barbiturates and Zweig's suicide note was reported as saying that ‘He lacked the strength to go on...that he was old, a man without a country, too weary to begin a new life.’
There is something powerful about Zweig’s life and world view that makes any project based on him intriguing and something one looks forward to embracing. 64 Squares from Rhum and Clay Theatre Company unpack part of Zweig’s life in a refreshing and heartfelt manner that brings to the forefront one of the 20th Centuries biggest questions, how does one get over one’s past?
The audience is invited on board the SS Triumphant as it makes its way around the globe, it is 1939. In the tiny cabin we meet a man - played to perfection by three actors Julian Spooner, Matthew Wells and Charlotte Dubery (as well as Fred McLaren who provides live music throughout the production). He is unsure who he is or why he’s even on the ship but, taking his lead from the shirt he is wearing that has a big white B stitched into it, believes his name must start with the letter B. As ‘B’ takes steps to come out of his cabin he meets a flurry of the other ships passengers and comes to learn that Milko Czentovic, world-renowned chess champion, is on board the ship.
With his newfound friends the trio head down to the bowels of the ship to challenge Czentovic. With some brilliant lighting choices from Geoff Hense and fun use of shadow puppetry ‘B’ finds himself face to face with the champion. He’s unsure what his compulsion is or why he knows how to play chess so well but Czentovic and an epic game ensues.
Through flashbacks and the repetitive burden of trying to connect to ones memories ‘B’ relives some of these memory fragments that are plaguing him, desperate to hold onto something. The stronger his memories get the more melancholy ‘B’ becomes these are the only treasures of his past that are still his but even they are failing him. The company only offer a glimpse into ‘B’ fragmented memories and though these flashbacks one understands him more, never feeling sorry for him one simply feels more understanding towards him.
"McLaren plays music and creates sounds throughout the play and there are few moments where there isn’t music or sounds being made."
Director Christopher Harrison has shown the greatest of care and respect in bringing such a delicate and rich production to the stage. The play is aided by a company who, much like their director, have understood more about their subject and part of his pain that has given their performances an authority that is set within the first few minutes. The company have also had a role in devising their production and working with Harrison what they produce is a theatrical experience that is stunningly beautiful.
There is no element of this production that hasn’t had the care and time needed to ensure that it works to the fullest. Amelia Jane Hankin’s design is functional, inventive and gives the actors the ease they need to utilise their whole space. And Grace Nicholas’s costumes add another nod to the continued depth to which this company have gone to bring 64 Squares to life.
A glue of sorts is Fred McLaren’s music. Throughout the production he is ‘B’s heart and his fear made even more impactful when one realises how important the role of music played in Zweig life. McLaren plays music and creates sounds throughout the play and there are few moments where there isn’t music or sounds being made. This gives the production a jazz age vibe that not only fits their narrative but also fits the period ‘B’ is part of. McLaren continuously looks at the actors with each note dancing alongside their movement.
A play can sometimes let you know in the first 10 minutes what its intentions are and a good play can hook its audience within the first 5 minutes, 64 Squares is most definitely the latter. Theatre companies have challenges ahead when bringing new work to life and care has to be given to the details, some perhaps slight others more obvious but it is these details that make the show.