Sunday, 18 April 2010


17/4/10, Young Vic

1 hr 45 mins straight through. An immersive (ho ho) piece of theatre about life on board a Royal Navy nuclear submarine and about the loss of the Russian sub the Kursk in 2000. A promenade performance on the floor of the Young Vic's studio space, the Maria, entered via a metal walkway at first floor level. Some of the audience (like us) walked down onto the main playing area; others stayed up on the walkway to look down at the action, which happened all around us. Notable for many excellent things but chief among them the sound design which made brilliant use of the undersea noises of sonar and whales and the Kursk exploding and of the tannoyed commands on board the vessel.

We were in the sub. The control room was in the middle; the captain's cabin in one corner; a torpedo in another; the crew's mess room at one end; their bunks along one wall with the washroom and heads in the other corner. For much of the time the principle delights came from observing the life of the vessel on a 12-week secret mission to observe Russian manoeuvres in the Barents Sea: the bickering and bonding, the sexual frustration, the rituals of diving and setting course, and the other rather different rituals of surfacing at the North Pole and becoming "bluenoses".

There was the coxswain, who'd brought a "teach yourself poetry" book with him and was learning to craft haiku (an excuse to elevate the tone of the dialogue now and again); the new dad, obsessed by his baby daughter, who died of cot death during the voyage and presented the captain with the dilemma of whether to tell him or not (in the end he decided not, because they couldn't get the poor chap off the ship mid-voyage); the captain worrying about the onerous responsibilities he faced. The coxswain, in the great tradition of fictional NCOs, was a brick who kept the whole thing together, mediated the crew's bickering and, when the Kursk had gone down and the captain was struck dumb with horror stepped in to fill the vacuum to "suggest" what should be done.

Inevitably we were reminded of Das Boot, especially in the scenes in which our sub glides silently and undetected right underneath the Kurks on order to photograph its propellers. The audience was as silent as the crew. There were also periods of complete darkness, including one towards the end when the Kursk had sunk and we heard the heavily amplified voices of two of its surviving shivering crew, trapped in the stern compartments.

(The dilemma for our sub: having detected knocking from the wreckage, suggesting signs of life, should they surface and alert the rescuers, betraying their presence and touching off an international incident, or should they sail away as per their orders?)

Most of the performances were pitch-perfect. The captain was perhaps the weakest. Our experience of submarine captains (Isabelle's two brothers-in-law) is that they exude self-confidence and would not have made it into the job unless they did; actors nowadays (the heyday of the Kenneth Moore-style stiff-upper-life war hero having long since passed) are too anxious to invest their characters with doubts.

The production is credited to a company called Sound & Fury: Mark Espiner, who directed; Tom Espiner, who played Newdadmike; and Dan Jones, who co-directed and did the sound.

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