To a Sunless Sea
Etcetera Theatre, Camden
There are a lot of plays about the failure of the Great American Dream. To a Sunless Sea is one of the first allegories to chronicle the sinking of the Great Post-Communist Russian Dream.
The playing space is split in two. Stage Right are two submariners on the Kursk, a nuclear submarine that is supposed to be the pride of the Northern Fleet and might have been but for financial constraints. Balancing them on the other side are Popov, the Admiral of the Fleet, his sidekick and, on two brief but significant visits, a sinister colonel played by the author.
In 2000, with Vladimir Putin newly installed as President, there was real optimism for the future of Russia. However, old habits die hard and freedom, according to our guide is a relative concept, especially when the experiment with capitalism begins to leak badly.
The action is narrated in garbled radio messages that sink in at an almost subliminal level. We initially learn that the Kursk is holed and meet Jack Beale and Thomas Wilton playing Vasily and Ivan. They are respectively a joker and would-be philosopher, trapped on board this claustrophobic vessel with oxygen seeping away and lighting suitably murky.
As they calmly discuss their fate, as well as life, the universe and everything, Kai Simmons as Popov becomes frantic, particularly when he discovers that political expediency and a need to maintain face are more important to his political masters, represented by Colonel Luzhny, than saving the crew.
In this way, Daniel McGowan is able to make some telling comments on both the Russian political climate and human nature under extreme pressure. There is also a chillingly up-to-date moment when one wonders whether he is attacking our own Government or maybe its Iranian counterpart.
The best conspiracy theory that the plutocrats can come up with is a collision with a non-existent American submarine. The disappearance of this enemy craft can easily be explained away since "These are our waters - they're not supposed to be here". Sound familiar?
Louise Hill directs with great sureness and the blacked-out transitions between scenes with their radio updates are smooth, maintaining pace. On the opening night though, some of Vasily's often very dry humour was a little too understated for the audience to spot.
The submarine scenes are particularly witty and eventually moving, while the political machinations sometimes seem overly complicated. The acting, especially from Jack Beale, supports the subject matter well, although, Kai Simmons lacks the necessary gravitas as the Admiral, hardly helped by a moustache that Groucho Marx might have found embarrassing.
Daniel McGowan shows great promise and one hopes that To a Sunless Sea has a life after the Etcetera. At just over an hour, it would certainly have the makings of a perfect Edinburgh production.
"To a Sunless Sea" runs until 29th April
Reviewer: Philip Fisher