Airlock Theatre, Alexandra Wetherell, Anglo-Russian Relations, Aoife Kennan, Bea Svistunenko, Bedlam Theatre, Bryony Lavery, Bryony Lavery’s “Kursk.”, Edinburgh Fringe, Kursk Submarine Disaster, Marco Young, Mark Milligan, Militarism, Russia, Theatre Review
The nuclear submarine today surely symbolises the UK state’s incompetence as completely as a dove does peace. In 2010, the Royal Navy ran aground its flagship HMS Astute off the Isle of Skye (clunk!), and further harum-scarum security breaches have been consequently stacked on top of each other. A drunken sailor ran amok with a gun on the same nuclear-powered sub in 2011, whilst a whistleblower revealed in 2015 that it is “harder to get into most nightclubs” than it is to infiltrate the security surrounding the Trident submarine’s nuclear weapon system. But the Royal Navy are mere amateurs when you compare their efforts to the incompetence which had led to Russia’s prize nuke, the Kursk, going down with all hands in the Barents Sea in 2000. Poor training and maintenance had resulted in gas leaking from a torpedo casing, and igniting.
The first productions of Bryony Lavery’s “Kursk” (2009) had typically wowed audiences and reviewers, but with this year’s performance, by Airlock Theatre at the Bedlam, we can see the weaknesses in the writing coming to the surface. “Kursk” is, of course, an ambitious play and a wonderful spectacle, but it doesn’t (oh, they just keep coming!) sink to any great depths. The entire play is contained within a UK sub which is bobbing along beneath the Arctic ice. The sub’s mission is to spy on a Russian naval exercise but the crew instead find themselves watching unobserved as the Kursk erupts and sinks in front of them. Their dilemma: should they intervene to rescue the survivors, and in doing so compromise Her Majesty’s state secrecy?
The action aboard tries to be both a jolly adventure, with back-slapping sailors and cheeky bare bums, and also a sensitive tragedy, with one of the seamen (Mark Milligan) having to learn that his newborn daughter has died of cot death. The play can naturally stretch only so far in either direction. Each seaman comes with a small piece of storyline – the Captain (Alexandra Wetherell) is worrying about looking authoritative, whilst another sailor (Aoife Kennan) is apparently struggling to complete a postal degree on poetry composition. These sailors thus seem like children who have been each given one item from the picnic to carry.
The tense control room scenes are visually impressive but rather over-acted or needlessly expressive. In reality, navigating a nuclear sub is probably switch-flicking and mindless boredom. The cast nonetheless show tremendous restraint when it comes to this Star Trek device in which they have to all lurch in the same direction to convey that the sub has taken a hit. It only happens an extraordinary once.
There is something faintly teenaged about the ultimate storyline – “Kursk” is essentially a coming-of-age drama in which a load of sailors go to sea and learn that the world is really unfair. The truth behind the Kursk’s sinking, though, was that the proud Russian state was happier to see its guys drown than appear to be dependent in any way upon foreign assistance. If the play’s UK sub had really blundered into this grim political milieu, then its crew would have almost certainly stood trial in Russia for causing the Kursk disaster, resulting in a major international incident. At the time, the Russian state had wildly blamed an unidentified NATO sub for “crashing” into the Kursk. To have a UK sub in proximity to the sinking would have been enormously useful to Russia’s face-saving agenda.
The undercurrent of sentimentality which runs beneath this play is also questionable. The deaths of men who had chosen to float about in a weapon of mass-destruction are ostensibly compared to that of a newborn baby. Even if men are always handsome on the gallows, this is a bit too egregious. The play’s symbolic usage of a nest of Russian dolls is, however, successfully poignant. Moreover, whilst I have indicated that “Kursk” does not evince the most copper-bottomed hard-headedness, there is still something very timely to its ideal of showing friendship to Russia. If the UK’s pointless ongoing acrimony with Vladimir Putin has any destination at all, it is world war. We should be indeed told, every now and then, that it is nicer to be comradely.