Kursk @ Young Vic, London

cast list
Ian Ashpitel, Keir Charles, Tom Espiner, Laurence Mitchell, Jonah Russell

directed by
Mark Espiner, Tom Espiner & Dan Jones
On the 12th August 2000 a Russian Nuclear Submarine sunk to the bottom of the Barents Sea during military exercises. What happened next, and who was to blame, remains controversial but the cold facts are that eight days later a rescue craft entered the K-141 nuclear cruise missile submarine Kursk to find that the whole of the crew had perished.

Kursk, the play of the same name, returns to the Young Vic after celebrated 2009 run and critical praise.
The Sound&Fury team of Mark Espiner, Tom Espiner and Dan Jones in collaboration with writer Bryony Lavery, decided to explore the tragic final manoeuvre of the Russian vessel and her dead submariners in a non-sensationalist way by viewing the disaster through the ears of a fictional Royal Navy nuclear submarine. The result is an immersive, insightful and moving piece of theatre that has you gripped throughout its 90-minute performance.

Part of its power is down to the echoing and metallic set which the audience are able to interact with. Meticulously designed by John Bausor, it is well researched to the tiny detail. Its depiction of the inside of a nuclear sub owes much to the time the team spent inside real Royal Navy killer nuclear submarines HMS Trenchant and TMS Torbay, getting a feel for the claustrophobic interior and tiny spaces.

The excellent cast, which includes former submariner Ian Aspitnel, bring to life the intense emotions, humour and camaraderie of the crew as well as the loneliness and boredom of life hundreds of metres under the sea. Despite the close quarters and cramped surroundings, the overwhelming feeling is isolation, both from the people they love and the real world.

Lighting from Hansjord Schmidt and sound by Dan Jones is also chillingly effective at plunging us firmly under the water with the Commander and his crew. We are sporadically in absolute, unnerving blackness, with the sounds of our own breathing alongside odd clanks, drips and echoes.

Submerged under the worlds deepest seas, at points beyond all communication, the commanding officers of submarines are faced with life or death decisions without consultation with high command. We watch as the submarines Commander is forced to decide between following protocol and saving lives, as well as whether to break heart-breaking news from the outside world to his crew.

It has been speculated that the 23 who survived the explosions made the decision to wait in the pitch black wreck for help rather than risk trying to escape and swim to the surface. Tragically, this help arrived too late.

The final scenes of the piece feature the imagined ghosts of the Kursk. Plunged again into the pitch blackness, this time with the thought of the submariners last hours, the audience listens to the words in Russian.

“Dima do you think we have a chance? A small chance, yes.”

Laverys script and excellent co-direction from Mark Espiner and Dan Jones avoids clichd melodrama, with the bulk of the play concerning the fictional crews individual interwoven stories rather than the Kursk itself. As a result we are left sadly pondering the courage of the real men and their families who server under the sea rather than the political storm that surrounded events.

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