We are always told to be heroes. During a Russian naval exercise in August 2000, a dummy torpedo aboard the submarine “Kursk” exploded. Despite being one of the largest and most advanced attack submarines ever constructed, the detonation proved fateful: while many of the crew survived the initial shock, they were not saved. All 118 men were dead as the submarine lay on the seabed.
Kursk offers a fresh perspective on the tragedy. The piece is tense in places, surprisingly humorous and heartwarming in others, but may not perhaps deliver what audiences are expecting from the drama.
For one, Bryony Lavery’s script does not centre on the Russian submarine, but instead focuses on the British submarine “HMS Splendid”, which had been dispatched to gather surveillance on the Russian exercise and the Kursk itself. This decision by the playwright is insightful, and sets up the play’s main tension: after the explosion, the British captain must choose between revealing the position of the submarine to attempt a rescue of the Kursk’s crew, or to instead follow orders and return to the United Kingdom.
This production by Airlock Theatre powerfully executes on the script’s innate potential for suspense. The set design is exceptional, with a metal tubing design successfully replicating the submarine’s claustrophobic spaces. Lighting and sound are used to its full extent, further amplifying the play’s incredibly engaging sequences, such as those depicting the submarine’s dive. Touches such as playing Russian voices over the English-spoken lines gesture gracefully towards larger ideas. The choice of Bedlam theatre is also smart: the cavernous church vaulting above the stage helps to create a feeling of submersion.
Yet, the piece seems to have made another (perhaps more crucial) decision: the moral crisis is placed surprisingly late into the script, radically altering the texture of the drama. Because of this, the moral crisis that should be the centre of the play feels rushed and hastily concluded.
Instead, the play appears to desire to focus on the experience of living aboard a submarine. On a practical level, this works: Airlock theatre’s cast work fantastically in ensemble, effortlessly generating laughs amongst the audience as they act out the behaviour and banter of the crew (expect masturbation jokes). There are some really funny moments in this play, although the comedy of the crew and the tragedy of the Kursk feel a bit jarring placed together.
Each character also has their own private life, and these again seemed prioritised in the play far above the Kursk’s sinking. Overall, these are dealt with effectively and add an emotional layer to the play. The production creates a motif from one character’s ambition to be a poet, but the references to poetry throughout the piece could be better integrated to deliver something profound.
As an entire piece, Kursk is a touching study on passivity and heroism. It’s intelligently staged and extremely watchable. But the play ultimately lacks the coherence to be truly effective: the play gestures towards and features many interesting tensions and ideas, but the production never manages to bring them into a whole.
Image: courtesy of production