Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Three Kingdoms, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: Three Kingdoms, Lyric Hammersmith

About halfway through the first half of Three Kingdoms on Tuesday night, probably an hour and fifteen minutes in or so, I scrawled the following in my notebook:

“Stop everything. Storm the National Theatre. Tear down the Donmar Warehouse. Torch the Royal Court. Redact the entire history of the RSC and fetch me Trevor Nunn’s head on a plate.”

In retrospect, this was probably an over-reaction born in the heat of the moment. Not because it over-praises, but because it does the great work at those theatres a disservice. Let’s blame the adrenaline flooding my bloodstream. Let’s blame the breathlessness and the dizziness; the disbelief and the sheer fucking thrill. I was putty. I was windswept. I was in love.

Three Kingdoms is a joyride.

And like any joyride, it’s possible to jump into the back seat or stand on the pavement and disapprove. So let’s not get carried away too quickly. It’s not helpful. Far better to take a step back and assess, than scream in your faces until you’re spittle-flecked and angry.

It’s true that, next to most British theatre – and it’s very consciously aimed at a British audience; more of which later – Three Kingdoms looks like an enfant terrible. It’s behaving badly and it knows it. However, there’s nothing so radical that you’ll sit there baffled and cursing its pretentions. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s actually pretty conventional, even if it looks unfamiliar. It’s certainly not inaccessible. Whatever the mainstream critics say, you know exactly how to watch this. You just need to jump in the back seat.

Co-produced by the Lyric Hammersmith, the Munich Kammerspiele and Estonian company NO99, Three Kingdoms brings together a British playwright, a German director and an Estonia designer in a head-on collision. Simon Stephens has written a play. Its narrative is, more or less, linear. Sebastian Nübling has directed it, using a blend of techniques adopted from Peter Brook, Pina Bausch and – without wanting to scare you off – live art. Ene-Liis Semper has designed it. Boldly, but certainly not uncomfortably so. No more so than a Richard Jones directed opera or a West End musical. No more than one might Alice in Wonderland. It’s just that the Wonderland in Stephens’s play is not an imaginative space, but mainland Europe. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Since I’m trying to ease you in, the relationship between these elements is not dissimilar to that of Mike Bartlett, Rupert Goold and Miriam Buether for Earthquakes in London. It just goes further: the text doesn’t demand such a theatrical approach, though it leaves room for it. Stephens’s text is characteristically muscular. Nübling and Semper run a massive charge through it and, rather than disintegrating, it comes thrillingly to life.

Admittedly, the production’s spirit is one of excess, but only insofar as Nübling and Semper have turned Three Kingdoms up to 11. Call that self-indulgence if you will – and almost every mainstream critic has – but really it’s a matter of making every moment count to its fullest. It’s about maximising its theatricality. I’ve been watching a lot of Great British Menu recently and Three Kingdoms reminds me of some of the cooking techniques. This week, one of the chefs made a spherification of some pea puree. That involves making semi-solid spheres of a liquid and the end result looked rather like peas, but with an intense pea flavour. Another chef infused lobster meat with lobster stock, doubling the taste. Sebastian Nübling – generally dubbed a maverick, but I’m not so sure – and Ene-Liis Semper have done the equivalent to Simon Stephens’ play.

That play looks like a detective thriller, but it’s not. It’s a journey narrative and a loss of innocence play. It just so happens that the journey in question is that of DI Ignatius Stone (Nicolas Tennant, brilliant), a detective in the Metropolitan police, and it runs in parallel with an investigation he’s conducting. The difference is that the former is all about the investigation itself (the detective is basically a flavoursome cipher), while the latter is all about character.

However, Three Kingdoms is still a detective thriller by proxy. It starts with a police interrogation; a standard good-cop, bad-cop affair. We’ve seen a thousand before. Stone is bellowing into the ear of a young local lad in an empty warehouse. His partner DS Charlie Lee (a professorial Ferdy Roberts) looks on coolly. We know what happens in these scenes and we know the narrative patterns they fit into. The first scene conforms and Stephens tricks us into watching Three Kingdoms as a detective thriller. But it’s not. That detective thriller stops conforming; it breaks apart and fragments. Yet the core character-driven play retains the pulse of a whodunit.

A head has washed up on the Chiswick Eyot in a rucksack. It belonged to a prostitute, who, it turns out, had been trafficked into this country. It was removed with a hacksaw. There’s a video on the internet. We’re told her head was held in a vice while a man masturbated into her hair before decapitating her with some difficulty. We hear the screams screeching from a digital camera. (The gore is always kept from us; proper In-Yer-Head theatre, but, boy, does it retain its impact.)

Setting out to solve a murder, Stone and Lee find themselves chasing down a sex trafficking ring run by a man known as ‘The White Bird.’ They track him first to Germany, meeting Detective Steffen Dresner (Steven Scharf) and visiting the industrial porn factory that produced the incriminating video. From there, Stone and Dresner go to Estonia, seeking the root of the trafficking gang.

Structurally, the play does much the same as Wastwater, only using a single narrative rather than three distinct scenes. It grows increasingly violent, dragging us into the depths. The first act hums with menace; the second pulsates, and, by the third, the play has reached Richter Scale forces. The joyride screeches out of control and careers off the road.

It’s also worth nothing that Three Kingdoms is the inverse of most sex trafficking narratives. It runs backwards: retracing the victim’s journey, rather than travelling it. As a result, it also looks wider than most such narratives and is not confined to the tragic experience of one individual (like, say, Roadkill) that only starts halfway down the causal chain. It heads towards the root cause, rather than the end effect. It doesn’t exemplify the whole. It goes after it directly.

In fact, it looks wider still, at the entire cultural system into which trafficking fits. Three Kingdoms is largely not a play about sex trafficking at all. It is about globalisation. Its just that the products being shipped around are people and, as such, the play hits home in a way that one about coffee beans or bananas simple couldn’t manage.

Stephens is basically accusing us, to borrow a phrase, of wilful ignorance. We are entirely complicit in propping up the system. He shows us it’s unseen side-effects; both those that exist underneath our noses – the hyper-local narrative starts across the road, in the William Morris pub opposite the Lyric Hammersmith – and its far off effects.

Nübling plays with the first of these themes particularly elegantly. Early on, a white-suited man (Risto Kübar), whom we presume to be the White Bird, squeezes through a crack in the wall, darts across the stage and disappears in similar fashion. It’s as if London’s underworld exists in two-dimensions, only visible from a certain angle. That world is also chameleonic. Still in the first act, Stone and Lee are cramped into a train compartment with the killer they’re seeking.

As for the second strand, as the Estonian detective puts it to Stone: “When you go to the toilet, you think your shit just disappears…Shit doesn’t disappear.” It winds up, apparently, in Estonia; London’s sewage system. Of course, this is not a revelatory point, particularly not in theatre, but it’s rarely said with so much force and elan.

First, Stephens takes us to Germany, where the porn our 12 year olds watch, according to the Daily Mail, is made. Nübling makes Germany into a conveyor belt of porn. Men and women in strap-ons stride around, lubeing one another up and joylessly sucking each other off. They masturbate coffee containers and straddle baseball bats. The occasional casual cry of ‘cam-er-a’ goes up to catch the imminent money shot. Shit and squirty cream and KY jelly goes everywhere. It’s repulsive. (It’s also – guiltily – the opposite.)

Stone starts to fray, and feel – as Lee puts it, in one of Stephens’s characteristic linguistic pointers – “a little dislocated.” The girl he meets at his hotel looks disarmingly like his wife in England and they have a frisson of sexual chemistry. Nübling plays one of their conversations in an exploded scene, such that Stone seems to swirl in and out of the actual conversation and his headspace. He also captures the sensation of feeling utterly alone and adrift in a foreign city. It’s somewhere between Lost In Translation and that Simpsons sequence in which Bart and Millhouse overdo the All-Sryup Squishies. Stone seems to reel drunkenly, unable to speak the language and tempted by the repercussion-free sleaze on offer. (Interestingly, David Lan told me beforehand that deep beneath Three Kingdoms is Christ in the Wilderness.)

By the time we reach Estonia with Stone, this has – in keeping with the Wastwater model – the ante has been well and truly upped. Semper makes Estonia a grey world of sheeny suits and rampant, savage misogyny. So noxious are its fumes (smell is key to the script and Nübling draws it out further, hence the deer and wolf masks for prostitutes and pimps) that DI Stone – who seems more bumptiously naïve than ever – unravels. The play does likewise, and it’s often hard to keep track. Are we the White Bird? Is Dresner? The Estonian gang wear boxing gloves and pound the walls with a barrage of punches. Speaking about the shift of global economic power Eastwards, imagining a world where Western Europe girls are trafficked into Asia, the trafficking gang turn slowly, terrifyingly, our way.

In all this, our experience mirrors Stone’s journey. As he travels Eastwards, Stone becomes increasingly disorientated. As we travel alongside him, what we see gets wilder, more fantastical and more extreme, particularly in its violence. Stone unravels and so do we. There are scales tumbling from eyes all over the place. (This is why I feel that Stephens is writing for a British audience, and Nübling is following suit, by gradually moving from naturalism to uncaged metaphor. It is about the Little Englander complex; and that applies to our theatre as much as it does to our wider worldview. Here, the play becomess an accusation of its audience, in a way that elsewhere, it is aimed, to a certain extent, at an absent party.)

However, Stephens makes clear that Estonia is not the Soviet hangover we might presume it to be with our English island mentality blinkers on. Like any of us, it survives by whatever means are its disposal. Stephens carefully structures each act as an echo of the others, moving through the same pattern with actors doubling in the same role (romantic interest, key lead, hunted) each time. It’s quite amazing; the same choice can both disorientate and suggest parity.

However, in the two messages, Stephens comes awfully close to having his cake and eating it. He suggests we’re completely to blame for their situation and also that we’re all ultimately the same. Yet, the production – whether from Stephens’s text or Nübling’s direction – is fully aware of this. Its coda – in which Kübar challenges Tennant to make a swan out of origami, scrunches his own paper and shakes his head when Tennant does likewise – admits the two-sided coin and the (near) impossibility of our own situation. Head it wins, tails we lose. It’s also quite possible to argue that the production, at some point, becomes the very thing it sets out to critique, and it exploits its subject matter for its voyeuristic charge. This, however, seems an unavoidable byproduct of its scoring its hits so powerfully and, for me, the ends wholly justify the means.

As for Nübling’s direction, it’s just unbelievably good. Nübling is not a maverick. He’s a master. As I suggested above, he has a tonal control that I’ve never seen rivalled. In the main, he employs Peter Brook’s theory of ‘empty space’ – that theatre’s representational system is analogical, not literal – but with a fiercely contemporary approach. So, individual signifiers work not simply as signifiers, but as real objects and actions with their own charge independent of the fiction they create. It’s a question of focus and he draws out the essential information, about character or location or action, with an intense minimalism.

He can bring out the brutality behind clincal post-mortem results in the slicing, dicing and juicing of an apple. He’ll stretch the luridity of pornography with synthetic strap-ons and squirty cream. After moments of heart-thumping tension and speed, he slams on the breaks with a soft, soothing, breathy lullaby. He makes a concertina of Stephens’s text expanding some moments and contracting others, trusting us to get the plot and adjusting the colour filter to bring out embedded themes.

In fact, it’s worth looking at Three Kingdoms as an supped up equivalent of Brook’s 1970 (!) RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Sally Jacob’s white box, we’ve got Semper’s grey one, which has a more complex layout that enables a more layered staging. Where Brook used spinning plates and diabolos, Nübling uses knives and dildos. Where Brook kept the playing fairly straight, Nübling brings in textual layers of dance and song, which carry both information and tone. (In fact, the mainstream rejection of Three Kingdoms starts to look all the more inexcusable in this light.)

Nübling might be auteurial, but not one of his decisions detracts from Stephens’s text at all. Rather they bring it thrillingly, vividly to life, while drawing out its essential, underlying contents with a stunning clarity.

I could go on and on, but essentially, I’m saying this: Three Kingdoms will change the course of British theatre. It comes at a time when certain young directors – Bijan Sheibani, Polly Findlay, Joe Hill-Gibbins among them, but plenty more further down, are starting to look to Europe for a clinical viscerality – and it goes much further. If you have any interest in theatre, in its potential and in its future, you must see Three Kingdoms. It is an extraordinary, powerful, rapturous combination of theatrical spectacle and dramatic intensity. You have one week.

Photograph: Ene-Liis Semper

One Comment

  1. I don't know if anyone knows the seventies TV show 'Gangsters'? Some days after watching it I thought of the connection, a show which started off as gritty realism and became stylistically stranger, with martial arts and Bollywood flavours included as it came into contact with those cultures. Eventually the whole structure seemed to disintegrate as it reached the end of the second series as the writer himself took on the role of 'The White Devil'. Very different but I wondered if Stephens was paying some sort of glancing homage.

    Anyway, I hope you don't mind if I add something which I posted elsewhere as I think it chimes in with your final points –

    “I saw this earlier and loved it; the international collaboration is well judged, giving the three sections very different atmospheres, I thought it got better and better as it went on. The first act with its British, almost Pinteresque, style was pretty good, the second act in Germany was excellent with its wildness and theatricality (character's breaking the fourth wall in what is ostensibly a fourth wall scene, freewheeling acting that moves away from the previous 'British' hyper-realism) followed by the Estonian third act which I found to be outstanding. The latter's highly physical, phantasmasgorical staging with its content rubbing together disparate styles that sparked off each other in interesting ways put across the piece's message very powerfully.

    Of course the last act is very anti the British way (which probably annoyed Quentin Letts) but its merely the reverse of earlier as in each act the 'host' nation is appalled at the goings on and attitudes of the others. That this has been expanded by the director from being textual to pervading the changing styles of the production was, I thought, a masterstroke.

    What I like about Stephens writing is the way that he provides a blueprint that is left to be finished in production and Nubling grasps that with both hands.

    The mainstream media critics have, on the other hand, been an embarrassment to this country, insular and seeming to lack the comprehension needed. Other inflential bloggers such as Dan Rebellato, Andrew Haydon and others are way ahead of them. That the Lyric is now giving 50% offers is a tragedy for this country's theatre, this is a piece which should be selling out having received reviews that are worthy of its achievement, you could expect mixed reviews but *all dismissive? Something is rotten in the state of theatre journalism.

    There is something in the response to this which mirrors the UK's wider antipathy to Europe, we are separate in many ways, not just physically but in our lack of knowledge of, and attitude to, European theatre. It's not surprising that those who gave luke warm reviews tended to like the first part and thought it got worse as it got more European.

    * I've just seen a good one in the Sunday Times, a bit late though for a two week run and hardly enough to change how awful we look as viewed from the continent. “

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