The Kursk – a flagship for Queensland’s independent theatre

And so to the theatre for the sixth time this week – and another opening night.  Sasha Janowicz’s The Kursk sailed into home port in Brisbane for a season at La Boite Theatre, and opened to a very full house on Tuesday evening. A disclaimer up front: I trained four of the six actors in the company, and am mother to one of them, so yes, I guess I could be accused of bias; I’ll let you decide. OK, to the production –

It’s probably understating things to say that this production of the play has resulted in a very, very fine night in the theatre. Written as a true labour of love by Australian resident, Russian-Polish Sasha Janowicz, this 75 minute play attempts to set a story straight. The incidents surrounding the loss of the atomic submarine  K141 Kursk over several days in August 2000 haunted the young theatre student Janowicz, then an acting major studying thousands of miles from home at the University of Southern Queensland. The reporting of the incident in the western media, with all the implications of incompetence in the rescue mission, simply appalled him. This was the story that he wished to set right.

As part of his university Honours thesis, Sasha then set out to write what eventually became the play. It went through several public workshop readings over the course of a year, with subsequent play development with Queensland Theatre Company and then, under Michael Futcher’s direction went on to take out more honours at the Brisbane 2007 Matilda Awards for its production at !Metro Arts. It has also been published by Queensland’s Playlab. Now, made possible by federal funding from the Playing Australia project as well as state government arts funding, The Kursk is back home in the reworked version that is currently touring Australia.

The play was meticulously researched – this I can vouch for as the supervisor of the writer’s dissertation. Since then, he has not stopped gathering further material, interviewing family and friends in Russia, and working on the back-story that the play now presents to its audiences. The writing has all the hallmarks of docodrama, but it’s also poetic, emotional, terrifying and, given the subject matter, canny in avoiding the kind of sentimentality that could so easily tip it into bathos. Director Michael Futcher then harnesses the theatre’s ways and means – bodies, voices, audio sound effects, light and set pieces in a way that compels the audience’s attention not merely to character, relationship, and narrative – themselves wonderfully wrought – but also to the theatricality of the telling. A metal bench on its end becomes an escape hatch, and then a submersible ‘driven’ by an actor, his face lit by a torch held by another actor. Actors slip in and out of a range of characters with ease, and the action never falters; like a Shakespeare play there is no full-stop until the very end. There’s an inbuilt tension that drives the momentum forward to the conclusion known at the outset; it’s the getting there that is riveting, that and excellent performances from the ensemble cast. Futcher steers a fine course indeed.

At the after-party in La Boite’s yard – QUT’s Creative Arts Precinct – David Berthold, the newishly-appointed artistic director of La Boite Theatre Company spoke warmly of this production of The Kursk – incidentally the longest independent theatre tour in Australian history. He sees it as an emblem of the vigor of the city’s indie theatre sector.  Berthod also mentioned his company’s championing of independent theatre through a program that will parallel La Boite’s own 2010 mainstage season. The Brisbane theatre community is naturally keen to hear his plans at the launch of the season later this year.

So, on Tuesday night a yard full of Queensland theatre makers and supporters – including Governor Penelope Wensley – was more than ready to raise a glass to one of the state’s biggest success stories, and to exciting times ahead. The independent theatre sector has great cause to celebrate.

Photos: Matrix Theatre
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