Kursk: theatre's equivalent of Das Boot

June 02, 2009
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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 of a submarine or a film set. 

Ian Ashpitel, who plays the British submarine’s coxswain, is a fan of Das Boot too. “Best film ever,” he said as soon as I mentioned it. He knows a thing or two about the reality of life on board a submarine: he was a radio operator on a British submarine during the 1970s. Many of the stories in the play come from his own experiences and he also helped Lavery to make the dialogue sound authentic, in particular the submarine protocol that forms much of the script. The cast were also shown around HMS Torbay, a Trafalgar-class submarine.

Many in Russia believed for a long time that the Kursk was in fact deliberately or accidentally sunk by such a British or American submarine. The play is based on the premise that a British submarine was in the vicinity of the Kursk (something the Ministry of Defence has never confirmed) but does not endorse any conspiracy theories about what really happened. Yet this is a play about the life that British and Russian submariners share rather than the struggle between them, the doomed submarine literally a vessel for an intense human drama.

Kursk opens in the Young Vic tomorrow, and runs until 20th June. Click here for more info.