This affecting production by London company Sound and Fury innovatively combines installation art, devised theater and playwriting to simulate the experience of being inside a fictional British submarine that becomes involved in the fate of the real-life Russian sub Kursk, which sank in 2000. There’s no seating; auds can stand on platforms overlooking the action or — even better — wander at performance level around slightly raised platforms representing the main control room, galley and captain’s quarters. The sophisticated combination of a wrap-around sonic environment, intense and believable acting and sensitive writing by Bryony Lavery (“Frozen”) create a highly immersive experience. Pun intended.
Only five actors give the impression of a much larger crew thanks to recorded voiceovers, but even more so because of the amazing attention paid to aural and visual detail. The first moments, set just before the British sub dives, find the five characters in overlapping cell phone conversations with loved ones and, in the case of the Coxswain (Ian Ashpitel), the university where he’s doing a distance course in poetry. Such quirky details add layers of interest to characterizations, prompting reflection on what an unusual and disruptive occupation submarining must be.
Defying audience expectations, nothing too spectacular happens during the first 40 minutes of action: The combined banality and extraordinariness of life below the sea is beautifully evoked in the men’s banter and the constant background noise and action involved in keeping the sub going. The crew themselves don’t know the real reason for their voyage until they are well under way: They are tasked with secret surveillance on the Russian navy’s latest secret weapon, the nuclear sub Kursk, “capable of unleashing more destructive power than was used in the entire Second World War.”
Such British surveillance (in association, we are informed, with the U.S. Navy) seems utterly credible, creating an unspoken but nonetheless potent political subtext: that the continued threat of nuclear action is extending global tensions long after the Cold War putatively ended.
The mysterious explosion that sinks the Kursk creates a dilemma for the British crew: saving the Russian submariners will break their cover and that of the Kursk, triggering an international crisis. The consequent tug-of-war between humanitarian impulses and geopolitics is credible and thought-provoking.
In the past, Sound and Fury has created entire theater pieces in total darkness, but a pure blackout is used here only briefly and to great effect; we hear strained breathing and desperate voices speaking Russian and are made to fleetingly imagine the hellish final moments of the Kursk’s crew.
The play ends with the recitation of the Russian victims’ names, which adds to the overall impression that this production is more than an innovative theatrical experiment but in fact serves as a memorial to the dead.