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Kursk- Young Vic/ Fuel/ Sound and Fury in Collaboration with Bryony Lavery , Drill Hall, Edinburgh , September 4, 2009
Theatre of Scotland by Kursk- Young Vic/ Fuel/ Sound and Fury in Collaboration with Bryony Lavery If it is possible to say anything definitive about eight hundred plus productions certain trends were discernible at Edinburgh 2009.

Firstly, digital media are cheap and portable and the level of technical sophistication is a leap ahead of five or ten years ago. There is very little put-it-in-the-boot-of-the-car-and-let’s-just-do-it-theatre. The upside is that an audience can be warmed up with Elvis Costello and “Oliver’s Army” in quad surround. But all the video display, on-stage computers, even a convincing cross-section of a Boeing 747, cannot substitute if, for example, a script is rooted in whimsy or a cast is thrown off kilter by a comedian with scant ensemble acting experience. David Greig’s play “Yellow Moon” has now played everywhere, including New York. The play requires a couple of black chairs- that’s it. If the machinery is unplugged the performance has to fall back on those basics, language, movement, narrative, a dramatic grip.

A healthy internationalism was evident. There was a chronicle from Long Kesh, an artist in Afghanistan, a performer gone to Gaza, Judith Thompson’s gripping monologues from Iraq. What was surprising was how little the current slump had filtered into drama, even more as it is the under twenty-fives who are being made to made to pay. Maybe it will take a year or so for rage to filter through.

“Public” plays were largely notable by their absence. That an appetite for public themes is evidenced by the fact that Lucy Prebble’s play on Enron is a sell-out. It is a little dismaying that the National Theatre this year is still reaching out to David Hare to write the credit crunch play and that he has no obvious successors. Simon Stephens is loved critically but his July 7th play is structured in shards and this year’s “Sea Wall”, albeit reportedly terrific, has private grief for its subject.

Thirdly, big acting roles for women still look thin on the ground. Women have now run E-Bay, Trinity Mirror, Yahoo! Forbes Magazine calls the female boss of mining behemoth Anglo-American “the fifth most powerful woman in the world.” The artistic community commonly refers to the “Cultural Olympiad” as a budget-snatching oxymoron but it was a woman who was named as the first board member to oversee its £16m lottery grant. The European premier least likely to be turfed out of office is female. Yet if a play existed where a writer had conceived a drama with a woman as a dramatic agent in her own right it slipped me by. In “Unit 46”, a big hit from Sydney, Lucy Miller gave an earthy physical performance but it was a character wholly defined by victimhood.

A production that was excusably all-male was “Kursk”, set on a nuclear submarine underneath the Arctic ice for months on end. Sound and Fury's artistic mission is “developing the sound space of theatre” and their first show was staged in total darkness with only Dan Jones’ sound to tell the story. “Kursk”, brilliantly set within a British Trafalgar Class submarine in 2000, also plunges the audience into darkness at times. We hear the voices of Russian sailors trapped in their air pocket.

The explosion itself on the Russian submarine has a physical impact. Before that we have heard whales, the collision of icebergs as well as the constant sounds of tannoy and equipment whine.

The set covers sixteen hundred square feet, of steel frame, pipes, wiring, screens, a periscope, and not a seat to be seen. Separate areas represent the control deck, captain’s cabin, the galley and shower. Bunks run behind a line of audience who stand, hang over railings, or jump smartly out of the way when the cast run to a new part of the performance space.

The factual research for “Kursk” included visits to real hunter-killer nuclear submarines. One cast member, Ian Ashpitel, the doughty coxswain, is himself a former submariner. To turn the documentary into a play a week was spent in retreat at John Osborne's former Shropshire home with Bryony Lavery. In “Frozen” Bryony Lavery wrote as psychologically acute a threesome as there has ever been but there are limits to what she can do here. In a situation that is inherently without drama the characters are given early character traits.

She is skilled enough to endow the action with emotion, humour and pace. There is the lonely authority of Laurence Mitchell's stoic commander. The chirpy youngster has a long-running sub-plot that comically ends in the sub’s lavatory. The limits on character are evidenced by the fact that Tom Espiner, from Sound and Fury, plays a character called Newdadmike which is what he is and not much more.

Probably wisely the script does not spill over into domestic politics or polemic. The commander states that the shadowing work is crucial to our liberties although a former Chief of Defence Staff has said Trident should be phased out and many senior military are half-hearted about it. The emotional crux is the sympathy that the crew feels for their doomed fellow sub-mariners across the ideological barrier- the late Jack Rosenthal put a similar sentiment into his “Bye Bye Birdie.” The commander promptly says that if they report their presence London, Washington and Moscow will go on Red Alert within ten minutes. If this is accurate it is quite a revelation as the public posture had it that the Cold War had ended in 1991. The script does not mention the Russians did in fact reject offers of help from the British and Norwegians.

“Kursk” should be highly recommended for its concept and ingenuity, its technical bravura and physicality. But the acid test, is would I travel to see it a month later? The answer is probably not. At the end of the day it is a brilliant piece of reconstruction but equally a narrative without dramatic nuance or ambiguity.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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