Chess is a game of skill and strategy and Netflix made the right move with The Queen’s Gambit which has already broken audience records.
But like any good stage or screen drama, it isn’t just about the board game – drug dependency, alcoholism and unrequited love all have their part to pay as well as a stunning set design and glorious costumes.
Paul Bayes Kitcher is artistic director of Fallen Angels Dance Theatre, Storyhouse’s Company-in-Residence. Fallen Angels Dance Theatre exists to support people in recovery from addiction to transform their lives and share the recovery journey with the wider public through dance, performance and creativity. Paul, a recovering addict himself, uses dance, performance and creativity to break down barriers and stigma.
We talk to Paul about how addiction and recovery are portrayed in the series, how chess has inspired his latest dance project and why Queens, Bishops and Rooks are the best at social distancing.
The plot of The Queen’s Gambit is essentially an orphaned girl plays chess and beats the boys. But with tranquilisers a staple of the orphanage breakfast diet – a form of treatment for childhood trauma in the 1950s and 1960s – protagonist Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy) is already on a potential road to ruin by the end of the first episode.
Paul’s own battle with alcohol and drugs reached a peak when he retired as a professional dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and he praises the series for its approach to addiction.
“When Harmon breaks in to the medicine cabinet, I was laughing my head off,” says Paul who admits that dark humour can be his saviour.
“It was obviously not funny because the child would overdose but they completely captured the reality of addiction.
“The tablets are spilling everywhere and she can’t get enough of them. Your whole world falls apart when you can’t get the drugs anymore.”
It is abandonment and suicide that pave the way to Harmon’s stint at the orphanage.
“That was very real,” said Paul. “The majority of people we work with have suffered some form of early childhood trauma and we are looking at that in our current project.”
Harmon is eventually adopted by a Kentucky couple in a loveless marriage. Mother Alma (Marielle Heller) is not overly affectionate but the two develop a good relationship focused on chess, alcohol and drug dependency.
Alma’s excessive drinking leads to an early death which eventually sends Harmon over the edge. Friends reach out but she locks all the doors and spirals downwards in a sea of drink and drugs.
“You don’t think about anyone else – not until you have had enough pain,” said Paul. “It’s not when your mother has had enough pain, your girlfriend has had enough pain, your best friend has had enough pain, it is when you have had enough pain, that you can start to get better. If you are lucky enough to be given that chance.”
Ballet is to Paul what chess is to Harmon. He is still recovering from long-Covid and we conduct the interview via Zoom but once we start talking about dance, I see a lightness in his chest, an open heart and his arms stretch beyond the limits of my screen.
Before The Queen’s Gambit hit our screens, he and his Fallen Angels had already started on a project themed around the game.
“One of our dancers, Frank, likened our Zoom sessions to being trapped inside our own boxes – just like chess pieces.”
Throwing around ballet terms like ‘en croix’ ‘en face’ and ‘arabesque’ Paul describes how the dancers have worked with upwards, downwards and diagonal movements just like the Rook, the Bishop and the Queen to develop strategies.
“Lockdown has added to people’s anxiety, so we are looking at how dance helps you step out of it – whether physically or mentally.”
Harmon believes that it is the drugs that help her win. Strategic moves appear on the ceiling above her bed which she applies in her tournaments. Sober, she eventually realises the images are still there.
“Talent is the gift and the gift is in the person,” said Paul. “She thought she couldn’t do what she could do without the drugs. I hear that so often – ‘I can’t play music without the drugs’ ‘I can’t dance without the drugs.’
“We all have talents to win the game of life. When we start on a pathway of recovery those gifts can come to fruition and allow us to grow and truly become the person we are supposed to be.”
You can watch Fallen Angels dance piece here, inspired by the game of chess
To find out more visit www.fallenangelsdancetheatre.co.uk.