A Young Vic and Fuel co-production, Sound&Fury's
In collaboration with Bryony Lavery
Commissioned by the Junction, Cambridge
3 June - 27 June 2009
A powerful theatrical experience inspired by the Russian submarine disaster of August 2000.
A submarine is on patrol in the arctic. The crew sleep, eat, drill, long for word from home, and silently shadow their target. Their lives, at once extraordinary and mundane, are shattered by a global crisis from which uniquely personal stories emerge.
Cutting edge theatre company Sound&Fury (The Watery Part of the World) join Bryony Lavery (Frozen) to imagine the life of submariners, deep below the icy seas on the fraying front line of the cold war.
We walk in upstairs on to a metal walkway galley, looking down into low-light submarine spaces on raised platforms - (easily recognisable from films) - the technology of the bridge, the glowing screens of the control room, the captain's office, the mess, the head with a shower room and bunks. We have the choice of staying up and looking down on the action, or going down to experience it inside the space: after exploring downstairs we make the happy choice to watch from above and so avoid any of the claustrophobia panics i was steeling myself for.
We get a clearly told mostly unembellished telling of the sinking of the Kursk, Russia's state-of-the-art 21st century submarine from the viewpoint of a spying british sub crew who photograph her moments before the explosion that quickly sinks her. The secrecy of their presence prevents the captain from making any rescue attempt that would potentially set off an international furore. Inside this are the routines of submarine seamanship and the human back-stories of the crewmen.
There is much right with this show and it is pretty successful in its aim to avoid sensationalising the story - for me it was still over-acted and would have easily sustained a more neutral restrained portrayal of the men. This is banality made super-engaging because of the atmospheric danger of the space and the inherent suspense building out of the narrative of the mission. In fact the star of this show is the submarine environment and at every level: visually it is an easy leap of faith to believe we are inside the submarine; kinaesthetically we traded down a bit exchanging cramped and crowded disorientation for the air, distance and comfort of our upstairs position, which gave me the enjoyment of immersion simultaneously with awareness of being in a theatre. But it is the sound we are here for and the sonic dimension is the one that magics the space beyond the literal. I would have liked even more amplification to charge this up into an even more felt experience even at the expense of the accuracy Sound&Fury were wanting, and i would have liked a more constant sound so that even the silences were filled with the noise of submarine existence. But beyond these niggles there are some wonderful experiences inside this show. The atmospheric sounds are utterly convincing (to someone who can only imagine what a submarine is like from films) as are the dynamic sounds like the search (periscope) that we're pretty sure are on a soundscape the actors have had to learn to perform on cue to. The women's voices of wives and girlfriends arriving through the familygrams are scored together as music that counterpoints with the pop music loudspeakered into their before they are forced into stealth mission silence. It is the sounds that create the imagined real sense of the dives, the crash into a stray ship container, and the spooky threat of the unidentifiable tapping noise. All good and makes for highly believable and engaging docu-drama. The moments of exceptional experience come when the sounds are given centre stage: in a nearly complete blackout we hear sounds of water in an echoing chamber, people struggling to breathe, russian men talking - the sounds of the Kursk crewmen dying puts us inside this moment with them, first the emotions catch and tumble, then the mind whirls and stumbles, the breathing starts to race and just as I am feeling the panic of a breaching collision of sensations the lights return and the moment is left as an imprint. We could easily and potently sustained some time here in our own heads, watching the men routinely carry out their duties in a mute overlay of all that's been stopped in the Kursk. But the story in our sub continues and we are forced to surface to attend to the more immediate specifics of one man's tragedy - and in this we are given the space to bring our own sense in to mix with what we are watching.
This is a good show for us, and ready to be an exceptional one if it can have more development (although the men of Sound&Fury seem busy busy with other projects) now that its first five years of making have solved the problems of sightlines, design, soundscape and narrative accuracy. Waiting to be found now is the fine-tuning in the balance between elements to transcend a damn good docu-drama into a heightened theatre experience. For me the next work would be to tune down the acting into greyer performances, which the show can easily support, and tune up the sonics to make a more visceral experience.
Unless, of course, this is what the audience downstairs in the main submarine spaces are getting already, and we lost by swapping the intensity of being inside the story with the men for easier and more removed watching from above and outside?
Sound & Fury is directed by Mark Espiner, Tom Espiner and Dan Jones. It draws on the disciplines of theatre, Foley artistry, sound design, music and storytelling. Its key artistic interest is in developing the sound space of theatre and presenting new ways of experiencing theatre and stories by heightening the aural sense. To achieve these aims, Sound & Fury has, in the past, boldly immersed its audience in total darkness. This unique theatrical device combined with sophisticated surround sound design, imaginative acoustic devices, voice and subtle lighting effects creates a powerful new language for theatre which has gained the attention and interest of the media, critics and - most importantly - a new audience. Their work has been twice selected for an Arts Council UK tour billed as the future of British theatre and has been included by the British Council in its group of touring companies. The Guardian has described their performance style as: “Total theatre that doesn't just happen all around you, but that swallows you up completely ... you feel as if you are experiencing the whole thing through your skin.”
From The Times
June 1, 2009
Theatrical realism in Kursk
The sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk has inspired a bold experiment in theatrical realism
Theatre is capable of taking its audience more or less anywhere merely through word and action and the odd prop. Even for the most imagination-stretching of art forms, however, life on board a submarine might be deemed a bridge too far. It’s been memorably done on film — the one that submariners all swear by is Das Boot rather than The Hunt for Red October. But how can theatre fully convey the cabin fever, the mental bends, the chronic uncertainty of the submerged life at sea?
Audiences for a new play at the Young Vic will be taking what is perhaps the first, and certainly the most realistic, theatrical dive to the ocean depths. Kursk takes place in the Maria, the box-like studio space where, as closely as possible, the interior of a hunter-killer submarine has been replicated in pipes, platforms, wires and blinking lights. Authenticity will be conveyed above all in the disembodied roar and hiss, growls and grunts both made and heard by the gigantic listening device that is a sub.
The title of the play gives at least some of the story away. It tells of the horrific death in 2000 of 118 Russian seamen aboard a stricken nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea. The majority of them died soon after an on-board explosion, but 23 survived in an airtight part of the cabin for several days while President Putin refused to let Nato come to the rescue.
The argument of the play is that Nato was very much in a position to help. The Russian Navy was testing new weapons systems and showing them off to the Chinese. At least two US submarines are known to have been watching closely. The supposition of Kursk is that a British submarine is also in the neighbourhood, and it is the one that picks up the aural evidence of distress. But as its commander of this sub (on which the play is set) says: “We’re an attack vessel, not a f***ing lifeboat.”
Kursk is a collaboration between the theatre company Sound & Fury, which specialises in surround-sound designs of cinematic scope, and the playwright Bryony Lavery. They were first teamed four years ago by a funding initiative that pairs young companies with established writers. Staging a submarine drama appealed to all. For Lavery the lure was “the claustrophobia of the space”. For Dan Jones, of Sound & Fury, it was putting on stage “the extraordinary mind game of submarining combined with the absurdity of the submariner’s domestic life: making tea alongside a nuclear reactor”.
For a while they toyed with setting the drama on the Kursk itself. The most bizarre ideas for realising the human tragedy were tested and discarded: the Kursk as a nightmare vision of Chekhovian stasis; the disaster as dramatised by clowns. “It became clear that normal life at sea is so extraordinary,” explains Mark Espiner, of Sound & Fury, “that we were going to miss a trick if we didn’t actually use that as a benchmark against which to set the disaster. There was the potential for voyeurism. Also, how are you ever actually going to get the idea of what the last 23 survivors of the Kursk were dealing with?”
Had a wackier idea prevailed, it’s very unlikely that the production would have had such enthusiastic support from the Royal Navy. Among the play’s consultants is the chairman of the international submariners association, who happened to meet the Kursk’s crew in St Petersburg not long before she sailed. A former Polaris commander who now runs the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport also advised, as did an ex-coxswain who was serving at the time of the disaster.
One adviser even ended up in the cast. Ian Ashpitel is a submariner turned actor who to this day lists reading Morse code at 25 words a minute on his CV. As a radio operator on a submarine at the height of the Cold War, he is full of tales of every hue: from breaking through the ice to play cricket at the North Pole to sneaking into Murmansk harbour to spy on a new Soviet aircraft carrier from ten metres under its keel. It may seem a strange career leap, but not to Ashpitel. “You don’t see daylight for 12 weeks and start doing things like putting raincoats on and umbrellas up, pretending it’s a rainy day. ‘Morning, terrible weather.’ Silly stuff. Watching TV programmes that aren’t there.” So it was but a step into the rehearsal room.
As part of their preparation, a visit to HMS Devonport was laid on. Jones took along his microphone to capture authentic sounds, while the five actors had a go on a simulator that fakes the sensation of a 60 degree dive. They also went aboard a real sub to get a feel for the actual cramped space. “It was like the first time you go to New York,” Lavery says. “You’ve seen it on film. It’s strangely alike but completely different”. For Ashpitel it was an unwelcome trip down memory lane. “I hadn’t been down one for 28 years and after ten minutes I thought: ‘I’ve got to get out of here’.”
The idea is to reproduce that oppressive intimacy. It’s a promenade production, so the audience will be able to wander under the conning tower and loiter outside the karzi. By coincidence, a full house will tally numerically with the hundred-plus seamen aboard a nuclear sub. Naturally there’s no interval. It will be a unique mark of the play’s success if by the end they are all desperate to get out.
Kursk previews at the Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7922 7922), from Wed and opens on June 8