Anyone attempting to dramatise life on board a submarine inevitably does so somewhat in the sizeable shadow of Das Boot, the epic 1981 television mini-series about a World War II German U-Boat. Briony Lavery, who wrote the script for Kursk, the new play that opens at the Young Vic on June 3, calls Das Boot the “benchmark”. Mark Espiner of Sound and Fury, the innovative theatre company producing the play, goes so far as to claim that Kursk will be “the theatre equivalent” of Das Boot.
After sitting through a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, that claim doesn’t seem quite as hubristic as it did initially. The rehearsal took place in a nondescript rehearsal room on the Walworth Road on a Friday afternoon. The half dozen actors sitting around a table in the middle of the room going through scenes had only just started rehearsing – they hadn’t even learned their lines yet – and there was little in the way of set or props. But to my amazement, within a few minutes of the first scene they ran through, I felt like I was inside a submarine deep beneath the Arctic.
Kursk tells the story of the state-of-the-art Russian submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in the summer of 2000. All 118 crew died in gruesome circumstances: most were killed by an explosion caused by a leak of concentrated hydrogen peroxide from a torpedo and the rest died slowly as the vessel ran out of oxygen. But the play is set not on the Kursk itself but on a nearby British submarine. Espiner tells me he wanted to avoid what he calls “the pornography of suffering”. But if anything, being at one remove actually heightens the drama.
Part of what made Das Boot so compelling was the way it conveyed the claustrophobia of life on a submarine – every sound seemed amplified, every moment of drama intensified by the enclosed space in which it takes place. The producers of Kursk aim to replicate that feeling of claustrophobia (presumably one of the few things about submarine life that remains unchanged since World War II) largely though the use of surround sound, which envelops you much like the physical reality…