When the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000, all 118 sailors and officers on board were killed.
The tragedy also brought this most secretive of services into the limelight. For most landlubbers, the whole episode raised questions about how the crews cope, not just with extreme danger, but simply with living, for months at a time, in conditions that most of us could not endure for a day.
These questions lingered for Mark Espiner and Dan Jones. As directors of Sound & Fury theatre company, they have already staged one story of sailors in extremis: The Watery Part of the World imagined the shipwrecked crew of a 19th-century whaling ship. So when a colleague suggested that they tackle the story of the Kursk, the idea took root.
Kursk, at London’s Young Vic Theatre, will not depict dying Russians. That, says Espiner, would be grisly: “It’s also not a respectful place to go. It’s voyeuristic. That was the biggest challenge: to be able to tell this story with taste.”
But the show will engage with the Kursk story and it will propel its audience into the shadowy world of underwater spying. What if, the show asks, a British submarine was observing the Kursk? Would they have picked up on the Russian vessel’s fate and, if so, what could they have done? The ethical, political and human dilemmas would be acute. But perhaps outsiders can only understand them by entering that world of secrecy and stealth. Kursk, then, aims to use the immediacy of theatre to immerse the audience in life on board such a British submarine. “We wanted the audience to feel like they’d really been on board a submarine,” says Espiner.
To help them recreate such an experience, the company visited a Royal Navy base at Devonport in south-west England, spent time on a hunter-killer submarine and spoke to naval advisers. One cast member, Ian Ashpitel, is even a former submariner.
“We were interested in what drives a person to seal themselves willingly in a tin can for 12 weeks,” says Espiner. “What does it take? And, talking to submariners, the golden rule from every single one was you are first and foremost a submariner. There’s a bond between all submariners regardless of nationality or enmity.”
Jones adds: “There’s a kind of common bond of brothers. [It’s] to do with the way they refer to the sea as being their enemy. In an act of aggression. They simply try to let the sea do its job – which is an interesting concept and underpins the idea that they all know what they’re really up against.
“There’s also meticulousness, in order to be able to live in the most excruciatingly crammed environment. Life on board a fully functioning submarine is so extreme and the psychological conditions so bizarre that one commander called it an exile from civilisation. It’s hermetically sealed, and everything is censored: the football results might get through, but no information about who is president if there’s been an election. The longest underwater trip that we know about is 110 days. It’s hard to imagine – no daylight; no fresh air; no windows. But submariners are not claustrophobic, unless something goes wrong.”
That is not something that can be said of all of us. One big hurdle for the show, then, was to give the audience a taste of this confinement without inducing mass panic. Jon Bausor, the designer, has used pipes and scaffolding to convey the feeling of restriction, and a moving periscope and lighting rig to give the set a kinetic quality.
Visiting the real submarine, Bausor was struck by the bizarre juxtaposition of military hardware and domestic paraphernalia – “everything mechanical is twice the size that it should be and everything human is half the size” – and by the lack of windows. “I kept on trying to find the light. You think, ‘There must be a window behind that cupboard,’ and you open it up and reveal five mustard pots. That’s the thing that I was most frightened by.”
He was also alarmed by the £3m torpedoes and his design will incorporate a missile. But the production’s biggest weapon is sound. From its inception, Sound & Fury has specialised in sophisticated use of surround-sound. The company’s first show was staged in total darkness, using only Jones’s sound effects to tell the story. It encouraged the audience to listen intently. In Kursk, this acoustic sensitivity becomes central. Here the very act of listening becomes the subject – and key to the plot.
“A submarine is the most advanced listening machine in the world,” explains Jones. “They can hear things hundreds of miles away – even the sound of snow falling over the sea above them. Sound and silence on a submarine are crucial. Noise husbandry is one of the most important aspects of life. Sound travels for miles through water and they even replace metal cutlery with plastic during times of ultra-quiet patrol.”
The potential of sound in theatre is often overlooked, Jones says. Once an audience is attuned, tiny details can suggest huge shifts in plot, mood or place. “Sound works very efficiently on the subconscious and, therefore, we don’t tend to analyse our sonic experience. And I think we’ve pushed the audience to confront that.”
Sound & Fury joins a fleet of new theatre groups experimenting with the way audiences experience drama. Punchdrunk, one leading exponent of installation theatre, has built up a following over recent years. The company takes over disused spaces and lets audiences wander at will, soaking up the atmosphere and pursuing stories at their own pace. Its next outing is at Manchester International Festival, which showcases several events that shift the way audiences and artists engage.
This move to immerse the audience in the world of a play has hit more mainstream theatres too. Several recent shows at London’s Royal Court, for instance, completely transformed the auditoria: for one, audiences sat amid racks of cheap tracksuits in a sports shop; for another, they perched on windowsills in a hotel bedroom. At their best, such productions can be immensely vivid, galvanising the act of empathy between observer and character.
But one challenge for all such events is to offer an intellectual as well as a sensory experience. Jones and Espiner emphasise that in Kursk they are seeking substance as well as style. They have collaborated with playwright Bryony Lavery. “We wanted to tell a story, not just to create an environmental feeling,” says Espiner.
But he adds that, in an age of screen-based entertainment, immersing an audience in an environment can sharpen their senses and revitalise theatre: “It’s seizing upon what theatre can uniquely do …You get to them under the radar.” A tactic any submariners in the audience might recognise.
‘Kursk’ opens at the Young Vic, London on Monday. Tel: +44 020-7922 2922; www.youngvic.org
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