A Young Vic and Fuel co-production in collaboration with Bryony Lavery
Maria Theatre, Young Vic

Production photo

Almost a decade has passed since the ill fated Kursk disaster of summer 2000. Ten years on, this production reminds us just how dangerous life at sea can be and that you don't have to be in the middle of a raging war to put your life at risk in the armed forces.

Kursk is set on a British submarine, whose task is to obtain information about the Russian vessel for intelligence purposes. The show takes a long while to get going and at times it feels as though it is suffering from Wallenstein's Camp syndrome. Although it is interesting to see the submariners at work and interacting with each other under the waves, this atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia is almost immediately summoned by the hyper-realistic set and sound design, rendering much of the text superfluous. The utilisation of submarine terminology only adds to a heightened sense of naturalism, making Kursk appear at first like a fly on the wall documentary, with no real narrative drive occurring until a third of the way through the show.

Don't be fooled by the title. This play is more about character Newdadmike than the Russian submarine: it's Mike's first voyage, leaving wife and newly born baby daughter at home. Whilst on their mission news of their loved ones greets the crew by way of forty word family-grams, but one month there isn't one for Mike and Donnie Mac isn't playing games this time.

This time it is the Commander who has received correspondence regarding Mike's family. It's bad news, but he can't risk telling Mike now, what with the vessel less than half way through its mission. Secrets under sea are dangerous and soon Mike's own personal tragedy echoes that of the Kursk.

The acting from the submariners is extremely strong and they clearly demonstrate how difficult it is to live under the waves in their microcosmic society. Society is governed by hierarchies, echoed in their positions aboard the submarine, but Laurence Mitchell's acting as the Commander is somewhat underwhelming, lacking edge and authority, and it is difficult to appreciate that he would be honoured with such a prestigious role.

This is not just a show, but an experience. From the moment the audience step into the Maria theatre at the Young Vic they are immersed in the action; a fellow crew member aboard the submarine, privy to all events and living in the actors' pockets, just as submariners do. The enclosed theatrical space further enforces this sense of claustrophobia, with everyone literally treading on each other's toes in what is advertised as a promenade production.

The sound design is outstanding and conjures up the feeling of sailing beneath the ocean waves: the blip of the radar, the fuzziness of the communication system, the echo as the sound bounces off the walls of the tin can submarine - even the rise and fall of the search is accentuated.

For 90 minutes we are treated to but a slice of what life is like in a submarine. For those who think that they could endure a twelve week tour after this quasi-training experience I'm sure the Royal Navy would love to hear from them.

Playing until 17th April 2010.

Allison Vale reviewed this production at the Bristol Old Vic

Reviewer: Simon Sladen

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