Kursk, Young Vic, London

Michael Coveney
Thursday 11 June 2009 00:00
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The no doubt peculiar life of submariners chasing each others' tails on spying missions two hundred metres beneath sea level turned tragic nine years ago when the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk blew up, killing over a hundred men.

Two dozen survived for a while in an air pocket, and it's possible that a British submarine, very much like the one that provides the setting in this new "physical theatre" and sound-surround production in the Young Vic's intimate Maria Studio, was diverted from rescuing them on Nato's orders.

Hollywood might treat this story as a disaster movie, but the theatre company Sound & Fury and playwright Bryony Lavery do something more interesting. They recreate the physical conditions of the submariners' work and suggest a spiritual affinity between fellow creatures in the submerged Atlantis of leviathan exploration and cold war spy missions.

The audience shares in these conditions either by perching on a steel bench running around the top of the theatre in the gallery, or by descending to the control room, brushing against navigational screens, sink units and bunk beds, immersed in the sounds of the sea, the thump of engines and the ominous tapping noise that causes mystery, then alarm.

The five actors create a sense of suffocation, too, as they await their monthly messages from home, boil over in rage and horse around, while the commander (Laurence Mitchell) issues instructions for the Moby Dick-like approach to the Kursk and the photographic exercise before the fatal lurch that made the whole area near me seem to list and panic.

One of the men, the coxswain Donnie – played by former submariner and radio operator Ian Ashpitel – is trying to maintain his writer's course work and rather painstakingly invokes W H Auden's "Atlantis" which is really an inverted "Hello, Sailor" poem to a departing tar.

One is more readily put in mind of a sort of cold war The Cruel Sea with elements of plays like The Long and the Short and the Tall about servicemen buckling in tight situations. We have conflicts in authority, tragic news from home, saucy suggestions from the new girlfriend (which send Bryan Dick's young navigator rushing off to relieve himself in private) and a sense that we are brothers under the skin of our unseen enemy.

Early on, the men discover a set of Russian dolls stowed on board, and they line them up as seven Ivans and one little Igor on the kitchen table. These come, by a dramatic sleight of hand, to represent the unseen colleagues on the Kursk, whose tragedy is personalised in a poetic gesture as the new dad Mike (Tom Espiner) ascends from the depths to play with a child's mobile.

This should be unbearably sentimental, but it isn't. The production by Mark Espiner and Dan Jones (who also provides the sound score) balances broad theatrical effect with the precise detail of the script to a telling degree. When the theatre goes to a black-out, we hear the voices of the Russian crew for the first and last time. It's intensely moving: so near, yet so far.

To 27 June (020-7922 2922; www.youngvic.org)

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