Finding The Words

©Richard Davenport 2012. London UK. Chris Goode Publicity Images

Originally written for Exeunt and the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

I’m sat on the edge of my bed, postponing the moment when I need to leave for work, staring with feverish intensity at the glowing rectangle of my phone. In these stolen minutes at the start of the day I’m reading every last word I can about Three Kingdoms, the new production at the Lyric Hammersmith that has sparked a long, sprawling critical debate. My own words are also out there, somewhere in the tangle of online criticism, and for the first time since releasing my opinions into the virtual world I feel as though I’m part of a real conversation.

I walk out of This Is How We Die at Ovalhouse with ears ringing and skin prickling. I don’t have the words to describe what I just experienced, and I’m not sure I ever will, but the search for them feels like the most important thing in the world in this moment. On the bus home, hands still shaking a little, I type an inadequate, sweary tweet on my phone and wonder if a piece of theatre will ever leave me this exhilarated again.

It’s late. Far too late. Far too late – or rather too early – to still be tapping away at my laptop with a full day’s work waiting for me in the morning. But I just can’t stop. I’m writing about Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, a gently mind-stretching essay of a show, and wrestling at the same time with some of the really big, essential questions about this art form that I love. What is theatre for? Why do we make it or see it? What really happens when we all gather in a room together to experience a show?

Who knew theatre could be so epic, so thrilling, so sexy? It takes about five minutes for The TEAM to steal my heart and squeeze it tight with the gorgeous, adrenaline-fuelled juggernaut that is Mission Drift, their warp-speed race through 400 years of American capitalism. Later, catching my breath and staring at a blank Word document, my only thought is: how do I possibly write something even a fraction as exciting as what I just saw?

These experiences are rare. In a lifetime of faithful theatregoing, they appear as sporadic, fleeting flashes on an otherwise calm horizon. It’s the promise of such moments, however, that keeps me going through all the boredom and mediocrity. It keeps me hopeful and it keeps me questioning, two vital qualities for anyone who wants to write about theatre with any kind of passion. No matter how many awful shows I’ve seen, the words constantly on my lips – like a much less glamorous version of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret – are “maybe this time”.

I find it hard to think of any one piece of theatre that set me on a course towards criticism. Writing about theatre, like so many other things in life, was essentially a bit of an accident. As an undergraduate student I kind of liked theatre, I kind of liked writing and I kind of wanted to start a blog – it wasn’t any more interesting or exciting than the serendipitous alchemy of those three things combined. Instead, what I find easier to pin down are the shows that subsequently kept me on that strange, coincidental path.

When first writing about Three Kingdoms and still feeling a little dazed, I suggested that “we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing”. This is what the best theatre provokes. There’s a line that I love in Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism: “In the midst of an earthquake, the critic is no better a guide than anyone else”. It’s a slightly embarrassing thought for critics, but an inspiring one for theatre-makers. They trace new contours in the world; we scrabble around to redraw the map.

Or, to put it another way, the theatre that I most want to write about is the theatre I don’t yet have the words for.


Inventing Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in 2009, Andy Field wrote a piece on the Guardian Theatre Blog with the bold and frankly brilliant title ‘All theatre is devised and text-based’. His argument, essentially, was that theatre is theatre is theatre. As he explains, “To devise is simply to invent”, making distinctions between devised and text-based theatre ultimately meaningless. Whether something is brought into being based on a set of instructions or a collectively built model that is constructed in a rehearsal room, in the end it’s all just inventing.

It’s extraordinary to look back on this now and realise that Field’s argument was being made so persuasively four years ago, and yet the debate continues to rumble on. Only last month, I attended a conference at Reading University at which an entire heated session – prompted by a provocation from David Edgar that was certainly provocative – revolved around the binary that Field effortlessly dissolves. As blindingly obvious as Field’s breakdown of this dichotomy might seem, the institutional structures supporting British theatre, from development programmes to universities to theatre critics, perpetuate the cleaving of work into these two misleading categories.

Duska Radosavljevic’s refreshing new book, therefore, is more necessary than a glance at Field’s blog might suggest. Theatre-Making lays out its most important intervention in its very title: Radosavljevic proposes this term as the foundation of a new vocabulary for discussing contemporary theatre, bringing it all under the inclusive umbrella of making. While the context of current binaries is acknowledged with frequent reference to genealogies, the book is persuasive in arguing why they are now outdated, with the actual work that is being made often defying the restrictive terms in which it is discussed.

Radosavljevic makes the case for transcending existing binaries by documenting a range of different contemporary practices that challenge the straightforward categories of devised and text-based. The book moves through the staging of Shakespeare, processes of devising and adaptation, new writing, verbatim theatre and relational practices, demonstrating in turn how each of these different practices bridges the gap between devising and playwriting, as well as inviting audiences into a kind of co-authoring. Examples range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Tim Crouch, from Simon Stephens to Ontroerend Goed.

As well as making the case for doing away with the devised/text-based binary more clearly and succinctly than any other text I’ve read on the subject, Radosavljevic adopts a striking and perhaps telling approach to the supporting criticism she draws on. While it is not uncommon to see newspaper critics referenced in academic texts on theatre, thus far the new forms of criticism that are evolving online have been largely ignored. It’s intriguing, therefore, to see an almost perfect balance in Theatre-Making between print and online writers – if anything, that balance is tipped slightly towards the latter.

This shift is highlighted in a section on Three Kingdoms, which is the production to provoke perhaps the most vociferous online reaction to date. After considering the critical debate at length, Radosavljevic concludes that “the most important outcome of the controversy around the Three Kingdoms reception […] was the way in which the blogosphere managed to outweigh the mainstream press in the depth of insight and its intellectual enquiry”. While this is one very specific example, it suggests that the potential for a new vocabulary of the kind advocated by Radosavljevic might lie in new forms of criticism rather than in the mainstream theatre press.

Having traversed a wide variety of contemporary theatre-making practices, Radosavljevic eventually concludes that these works, “emerging through the encounter between theatre and performance-making strategies”, represent a convergence of what Patrice Pavis defines as “text” and “mise-en-scene”. The implication of this convergence is that it “finally makes it possible for the text to be understood as one element of the theatre or performance-making idiom, thus transcending previously entrenched hierarchies”.

In light of developments that just happened to coincide with my reading of the book, Radosavljevic’s observations and suggestions seem to be vindicated at every turn. Returning again to Field, Forest Fringe (which he co-directs) have recently published the second issue of Paper Stages, described by them as “a festival of performance contained within the pages of a beautifully designed book”. This is not a blueprint for a performance event, but an event made into paper, ink and imagination.

This project demonstrates a deliberately playful approach to the text, with a gleeful lack of regard for the categories it has previously found itself forced into; Paper Stages is neither script nor record, but a set of suggestions for performance – even the word instructions feels too prescriptive. The book is what its reader makes of it, requiring them to reconfigure their own understanding of the relationship between text and performance.

Around the same time, I was also intrigued to see that Bryony Kimmings had published a script of Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model to coincide with the show’s run at the Soho Theatre. This is the culmination of a conversation between Kimmings and publisher Oberon that started last year, when Kimmings began to wonder how her work might take textual form. Would it be a kind of documentation, or a set of instructions that might allow others to reconstruct her shows? I have yet to see a copy of Credible Likeable Superstar Role Modelmyself, but I understand that large chunks of it take the form of poetic descriptions of the onstage action, acting not as stage directions, but also not quite as a straightforward record.

These are just two examples that spring immediately to mind. Everywhere artists are subverting restrictive and prescriptive understandings of the theatre text, but many of the structures around them remain out of step. The hope is that, following Radosavljevic, our critical vocabulary might begin to catch up.

Morning, Lyric Hammersmith

The auditorium is flooded with mangled, discordant screams. Pale fluorescent light creeps across the stage, illuminating a snapshot of horror with the clinical blandness of the hospital ward. And all around me, audience members stifle laughs.

This is the moment from Morning that is etched most vividly on my memory. Being seated in the middle of a group of teenagers, the demographic with which Simon Stephens’ latest, horribly compelling play concerns itself, offers a fascinating perspective on this piece – certainly not one likely to be found on press night (just one reason why it can be helpful to occasionally step out of the herd of ferociously scribbling critics, but that’s a subject for another time). Ripples of discomfort swell through the theatregoers around me as they drink in a cocktail of strangeness and recognition to which the only response is a nervous titter. As one boy put it on his way out, with a hint of awkward admiration, “that was bare weird”.

The “bare weird” show that Stephens and director Sean Holmes have created with the Lyric Young Company centres on Stephanie, a fiercely intelligent but disturbed teenage girl played with terrifying precision by Scarlet Billham. Sick with sadness yet unable to stop smiling, she dispenses viciousness without a flicker of concern. Stranded in an antiseptic suburbia where all the meticulously kept gardens look exactly the same, ennui is a permanent state for Stephanie and her friends – one of whom, Cat, is about to escape for university. Before she leaves, however, Stephanie has recruited unwitting boyfriend Stephen in a scheme for a savage send-off, an escalatingly brutal scene around which the play nauseatingly pivots.

I expect that numerous comparisons will have been made with Punk Rock, another unsettling Stephens play that takes modern youth as its subject. Not wanting to disappoint, I admit that such thoughts did strike me while watching Morning; in many ways these are quite different pieces, but a direct line can be drawn between William Carlisle and Stephanie. In each case, Stephens’ protagonist is startlingly intelligent, an intelligence that acts as an uncanny counterpoint to their respective brutality and apparent emotional detachment. Eschewing the hoodie-clad image that haunts portrayals of contemporary teenagers, Stephens’ portraits of this generation are all the more blackly horrifying.

What strikes me as being particularly important, perhaps for this play even more so than Punk Rock, is the teenage perspective. This is perhaps because my ears are still ringing with the words of Ontroerend Goed’s Alexander Devrient, who said something along the lines of teenagers being at a stage of life in which they can see what is wrong with the world but are not yet able to formulate any remedial ideologies (I’d recommend listening to his full, thoughtful, softly spoken interview for Theatre Voice, in which he speaks eloquently and at length about his work with young people). But what if they only see diagnosis without cure because that is the unacknowledged truth of the world?

Perhaps what we can take from Morning is the incisive awareness of a world in which, in Stephanie’s words, “everything is fucking shit”, an awareness not yet blunted by ideology or philosophy or religion – teenage nihilism three times distilled. But there is a taut, oddly appealing ironic tension between this apparent nihilism and the quotation from Marx that Stephanie prints in bold felt tip: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it”. The knowledge that this piece has been made specifically for and with the age bracket represented then adds another fascinating layer; how have the astonishingly talented members of the Lyric Young Company influenced this final, unblinkingly bleak vision of the world?

Which brings me neatly, if not uncomplicatedly, onto my next point. As discussions of Stephens’ work tend to veer towards considerations of collaboration, especially in the wake of the extensive critical discussion around Three Kingdoms, and as I’m ever more conscious of the disingenuousness of critically portioning a production into writing, direction, design and so on, it seems apt to reflect on the ways in which the various elements of this piece feed into one another.

In considering the aesthetic of the whole, the words that rise most stubbornly to the surface of my mind are “antiseptic” and “clinical” (neither in a negative sense, I should add, but one that feels crucial to the piece). From stark fluorescent lighting to unsettlingly alienated performances, there is a sterile coating that settles over the production like the shimmering sheets of plastic that shroud Hyemi Shin’s set. The design itself is what first snatches at the attention: the large, half-filled glass tank of water, the industrial fridge containing a single bag of blood, the forensic tent, the assorted lights, the plastic – there’s lots of plastic. This seeps into the plasticity of the performances, a sort of blank, detached distortion of naturalism that could just be taken for stiff acting in the opening moments but that soon emerges as a very particular style, one that is married to the coldly artificial quality of the design and the dislocated realism of Stephens’ text (a misleading and loaded word, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, but one that will do in the absence of a more precise vocabulary).

In place of the domestic settings to which Stephens’ dialogue refers, the production is littered with forensic paraphernalia, an implicit nod to the current ubiquity of the detective narrative, but this is a crime scene in which nothing is solved (a nice example of how a non-literal interpretation can be a more perceptive comment on the text than one which sticks rigidly to its real-world inferences). It also hints at a certain clue-hunting critical approach to theatre, a quest for meaning that Stephens – and indeed the whole production – actively eschews.

Without listing every aspect of this intriguing staging, the other element of the production that merits particular mention is Michael Czepiel’s nightmarishly distorted soundscape, which is produced live on stage with both Czepiel and the sound desk in full view. As well as peeling away the illusions of theatricality, this choice pulls on strands of voyeurism and plants another of the production’s subjects as a permanent presence, the (mostly) silent youth glued to the computer screen.

Returning to nihilism, this multi-layered whole produces an anarchic, punk-inflected void of meaning, a great black gaping hole where we might expect to see hope or redemption or some kind of “message”. Perhaps deflecting some of the criticisms that have been levelled at his work in recent years, the concluding words of Stephens’ script (yes, sorry, I’m attaching elements to single individuals once again, but let’s just assume for sake of ease that these words are purely Stephens’) are a gutting “fuck you” to any demand for an optimistic chink of light. But just to contradict that – and to once again overturn my simplifying attributing of authority to Stephens – the production itself goes on to complicate this appropriately teenaged gesture of rebellion.

Morning is the sort of uncompromising piece that inevitably cleaves opinion, if not perhaps to the same impassioned extremes as Three Kingdoms (which I will, eventually, stop going on about – probably). Potent reactions spill tangibly through the audience throughout the painfully gripping hour of the play’s length and pour out into the packed foyer after the final bow. The one response that is markedly absent from the teenagers around me, however, is shock. Like Stephanie, they emerge smiling. After all, if you know already know that there is nothing but terror, what else is there to do but laugh?

A Tissue of Quotations: Theatre & Authorship

To state that theatre is an essentially ephemeral art form would seem to be a reiteration of the obvious. The distinct nature of performance lies in its liveness, its specific relationship with a specific set of audience members at a specific moment in time, none of which can ever quite be replicated. At a less specific level, each production is a crystallized present moment, an entity that exists only for the length of its run and is determined by a very particular set of choices and aesthetics. Theatre is, at its heart, a fleeting phenomenon.

Yet we remain, at least in British theatre culture, obsessed with preservation, with legacy, and with the rigidly hierarchical process of pinning a production down to a single authoritative source for the purposes of that preservation. Hence the primacy of the “author”. And I was, initially, as unquestioningly compliant with this notion of authorship as anyone else; it is, after all, easier for the purposes of a review to assume that the content of the piece has been born from the mind of the writer and to conflate all connecting themes, threads and resonances with the intention of the playwright. But such assumptions have been bracingly unsettled by the recent focus on British theatre’s false dichotomy between “new writing” and “new work”, a dichotomy which I would argue has deeply ingrained notions of authorship at its core.

There are many perceived differences underlying this opposition between what has been loosely referred to as text-based and non-text-based theatre, differences connected with narrative, character, aesthetic etc., but it seems to me that the unifying aspect at their centre is the presence or absence of a single author. Text-based work is typically associated with naturalism, linear narrative and a coherent driving “message” because it is supposed to be the creation of one dominant creator, one authorial “voice”, with all other elements of the production harnessed to serve the vision outlined in the text. Non-text-based work, by contrast, is seen as eschewing all of these notions of linearity and coherence because it has been conceived by a devising ensemble and consists of a multiplicity of voices.

Of course, such assumptions are often not the case in practice, but while the moment of performative realisation may be more democratic, it is the author whose name will remain attached to the work long after its production. For this reason, as Kat Joyce eloquently argues in her guest column over at Exeunt, work that does not have a clear hierarchy of authorship and that explicitly depends upon the nature of its liveness risks being obliterated by the very text-based process of historicising, thus perpetuating the supremacy of scripted work. In Joyce’s words:

“At its deepest level, does a system which fixates on individuals and playtexts also radically undervalue the potentials and possibilities of live performance in all its unfixed, unstable, temporary glory?”

It is clear – at least to me – that we need to rethink our rigid definition of authorship if we are not to devalue the moment of performance and neglect a huge swathe of this country’s theatrical output. But this isn’t just about recognising the work of devising companies, because recognition alone does not necessarily smash down the persistent divide between text-based and non-text-based work (undeniably reductive and misleading labels, but ones which are handy for the purposes of this piece). Negotiating that divide and the reasons behind it is much trickier.

It boils down, I think, to an idea of authorship that extends beyond the realm of theatre and performance. We are part of a literary culture which is, as Roland Barthes put it in his seminal essay “The Death of the Author”, “tyrannically centred on the author”. Throughout secondary school, students are encouraged to interrogate texts in order to unveil their “meaning”, as if reading was one long act of detective work, with the author’s intention enshrined at its centre. While university courses in literature explore a much more nuanced approach to textual analysis, there is a general subscription to the prominence of the author in all text-based art forms, an approach that has insidiously crept into understandings of theatre.

Because such an author-centred approach is key to our culture, much talk in theatre has been given over to “serving the text”, “serving the writer”, “staying true to the writer’s intention” etc. Within such a model, all other elements of a production become tools to illuminate the writer’s purpose and the other creatives involved are viewed as little more than vehicles to convey an overarching authorial “message”.

The problems and contradictions inherent in this model can be illustrated by a couple of examples drawn from conversations I’ve had with theatremakers, examples which I’m sure are not unique. Discussing feedback that she’d received about her interpretation of Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, Greyscale’s Selma Dimitrijevic told me that audiences seemed outraged about certain directorial choices that she had made (the most discussed of these being her decision to cast male actors as women) until they became aware that she had also written the play. Apparently directorial interpretation is only acceptable when it originates from the writer. On a slightly different note, Thomas Eccleshare expressed his frustration with the fact that, despite creating work for two years with his company Dancing Brick, it was only when he won the Verity Bargate Award that he earned the label of “writer”, with devised work remaining stubbornly excluded from the narrow category of new writing.

Joyce’s column, which draws partly from her own experiences as the co-artistic director of physical theatre ensemble tangled feet, again expands on the difficulties posed by a culture which places a disproportionate value on the written text, while Hannah Silva has blogged on numerous occasions about the restrictive definition of new writing that prevails in this country and the difficulties of negotiating that definition (I can’t track down the exact piece that I have filed away at the back of my mind, but read her blog for some fantastic reflections and provocations about writing for theatre).

There’s much more to say about how the divide between text-based and non-text-based theatre has been reinforced, particularly through the Arts Council funded new writing drives referred to in Alex Chisholm’s essay for Exeunt, but I’d like to remain focused on this central notion of authorship, its complexities and how it might be reconfigured. Barthes, who I have already quoted, provides one answer to how the false idol of the author might be displaced. He describes the text as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In other words, no piece of writing is truly original and all writers are continually quoting their antecedents.

If we accept Barthes’ definition of the text, authorship is at best an act of curation and interpretation – not, really, all that different from directing. In a staunch defence of the writer’s intention in his essay “Interpretation – To Impose or Explain”, playwright Arnold Wesker posited this argument in order to deride it, laughing at the possibility of “interpreting an interpretation”. I would contest, however, that this is not such a ridiculous idea. Not only might a writer produce an interpretation rather than an utterly original source text, but that interpretation might be jointly (re)interpreted by director, performers and entire creative team in collaboration with the writer (or writers), acknowledging that theatre is an emphatically collaborative art form.

It is also worth briefly interrogating the term “text”, which I’ve been carelessly throwing around as if it had one single, fixed meaning. This term is generally interpreted to mean the written text in the form of a conventional script, but it can – and perhaps should – be expanded to include the entire dramatic text, encompassing all elements of a production and its reception, acknowledging a circuit that is completed by the audience. I’m reminded of another discussion with Selma Dimitrijevic, in which there was some consideration of the similarly unstable word “play”; Selma said that she typically interprets this to refer exclusively to the written script, but it is used interchangeably by critics, at some times indicating the script and at other times the whole production.

Bringing critics into the mix flags up their (our?) role in this binary. There is a tendency, conscious or not, to write separately about all the individual elements of a production, isolating writing, direction, design and performance in a sort of criticism by numbers that I know I’ve been guilty of employing. This is often a case of convenience and is to an extent inevitable; without having observed the process, which is another debate entirely, it’s impossible to know who was responsible for each and every creative choice. Yet there is a danger, because criticism again holds a certain lasting currency by virtue of its written format, that a failure by critics to acknowledge the collaborative nature of work will perpetuate the schism. I’m not yet entirely sure how this danger can be overcome, but it’s worth considering.

Having scratched away a little, if only fairly superficially, at the notion of authorship, how might it be possible to rethink the format of the legacising theatrical (written) text? To answer this question, it’s also necessary to answer the question of what a playtext is for. Physical theatre company Square Peg summed it up nicely in a response on Twitter: “Is the script the beginning or the end of a process? A document or an instruction? Can it not be both?” I’d agree that the written element of theatre has a dual role, acting as a (non-fixed) jumping off point and as a form of preservation, though both of these twin roles are slippery.

Some intriguing questions were asked via a recent conversation on Twitter between Bryony Kimmings and Oberon Books, with contributions from others, which was one of the catalysts for nailing down these thoughts. As later blogged by Kimmings, she wanted to explore whether the kind of art she creates could be published as a script, and if so what form that might take. She asked: “How does a live artist that plays in the Cabaret space at Soho Theatre and just did her first stand up gig get her work published … does she need to?”

The need could be quite persuasively argued as a form of documentation and legacy, a way of recording live art in the same way as text-based theatre. The question of format, however, is less easily answered. Would it be a script detailing the original performance, or a DIY kit allowing space for interpretation? It all depends, of course, on whether a work is intended to be produced again. At the risk of banging on about it yet again, here I think it’s interesting to bring in the example of Three Kingdoms (which also, though I won’t discuss it here, provides an interesting challenge to British theatre’s text bias, possibly offering a way to bridge the gap). Here is a playscript that differs so dramatically from Sebastian Nübling’s production that they are really two different texts. Were anyone brave enough to attempt another production, would they start from Simon Stephens’ script or from its collective realisation on stage?

Much more could be written on this thorny issue, but for now I’d just like to bring in one final example that complicates matters even further. In the absence of a space at Edinburgh this year, Forest Fringe have made the fascinating decision to “create a performance space built not of bricks and mortar but paper and ink”. Paper Stages is a book co-authored (again destabilising the concept of a single voice of authority) by a wide range of Forest Fringe artists and made available for festival-goers to perform themselves. There will as a result be multiple dramatic texts, many performed in the absence of audiences and without documentation, giving fluid meaning to ideas of authorship, performance, reception and collaboration.

A script is not fixed or indeed finished until the moment of performance and reception, but perhaps a performance’s documentation is equally unfixed. To come full circle, theatre is ephemeral. While preservation remains an important concern for artists attempting to secure their place within a text-biased culture, there is an argument that to resist the uniqueness of live performance is essentially futile. We should be celebrating liveness, not attempting to solidify it.


Revisiting Three Kingdoms

Here we go again …

On Saturday, the final night of the run, I went back for a second viewing of Three Kingdoms. Drowning in superb but brain-frazzling criticism and starting to feel, much like Maddy Costa expresses in her wonderfully honest blog, uncertain which thoughts were my own and which I had accidentally borrowed from others, I needed to see it for myself again. I needed another hit of that visceral punch that can only be gained from the production itself (though Megan Vaughan evokes it pretty forcefully for anyone who wasn’t there).

And it was an ecstatic rollercoaster of an experience, even second time round – perhaps even more so second time round. I surrendered myself to the dream and awoke three hours later, dizzied and wondering where all that time had gone. I also realised how utterly stupid my first impressions of the production were and how much I had missed. There is simply so much going on, and a second viewing only compounded the feeling that it would be futile to attempt to write about the production as a whole. This conceded, I’m not going to make such an attempt, but there are a few points that I feel the need to return to.

Critical response – By now it’s fairly clear that, whether or not you believe Three Kingdoms will change the face of British theatre, it has had an extraordinary response. For me the past couple of weeks have been a brain-melting whirlwind, and I’m still not sure I’ve read everything out there on the internet about this show. I personally have never seen such an overwhelmingly vocal response or such a volume of responses to one show – and this is all despite a fairly dismissive attitude from (the majority of) the mainstream press. I can only echo Maddy in hoping that someone will find the time to collate everything that has been written in one space.

As a result, I feel that much of my own response to the show has been bounced off of what other people have said about it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I find it valuable to test my own thoughts against those of others and continue to weigh up my reaction to a show for some time after, but it did make me begin to lose sight of what moved me to engage so much with this production in the first place. For that reason I feel as though a repeat viewing is vital, although even now the intervening hours since that second experience of the show have widened the gap once again between the thoughts that are purely my own and the thoughts that are responding to the opinions of others.

But I’m beginning to think that maybe this is what theatre is all about. I firmly believe that objectivity is a fallacy, because the way in which any of us view a piece of theatre is inevitably coloured by our own identity, experiences and opinions no matter how hard we try to discard these, and perhaps the truly individual response is much the same. Unless we are to view and critique a production in complete isolation, without access to any form of marketing material or even so much as the body language of the audience member sitting next to us, we are going to be influenced, however minutely, by those around us. I’m hardly the first to quote Tassos Stevens on this, but it seems appropriate and helpful to recruit his point here:

“The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.”

Within this extended experience, as Stevens sees it (and I happen to think he’s hit the nail on the head), there are lots of other voices involved. The marketing material that alerts you to the production, the feature or interview you might read in the paper before going to see it, the programme notes, the background buzz of the theatre bar, the conversation with your friend in the interval. No critic can be completely impervious to this trickle of outside influence.

As long as we do not find our own opinions indistinguishably mingled with those around us, which I have felt is a real danger for me with Three Kingdoms, I’m not sure there’s anything particularly wrong with taking on board the opinions of others. Engaging in dialogue afterwards is fast becoming one of my favourite parts of the theatrical experience and I frequently find myself refreshingly challenged by hearing or reading the responses of others. While I sadly don’t have the time or, quite frankly, the mental capacity to respond to everything else that has been written about Three Kingdoms, I can only jump for joy that so much has been written and that so many people are having these conversations. This is, of course, where online criticism comes into its own.

Text and production – Coming back to the production itself after veering off on that slight tangent, I’m still intrigued by this question of how Three Kingdoms has been pieced together. If you can get your hands on a copy of the playtext (which might be difficult as I nabbed the Lyric’s last one on Saturday night – sorry!) then I would strongly recommend taking a look at it. I’ve yet to read it cover to cover, but a cursory skim is enough to establish that this is a world away from the final production. As well as making it clearer which elements have emerged from the collaborative process with Nübling and the rest of the creative team, it has also made me think a lot about the relationship between text and production and playwright and director.

There are many, many differences between the original text and the final production it has morphed into, but two jump out. Firstly, reading the playtext reveals that Ignatius was originally conceived as a bilingual character, a fact that was only changed to adapt to a casting alteration during rehearsals. I was surprised by this, because Ignatius’ deep sense of linguistic disconnection and cultural disorientation felt absolutely vital to the final production; as an audience, we too are enveloped in the surreal sense of dislocation that he experiences. It would not be the same play without it. Which raises questions about the value we put on deliberate design versus happy accident or fruitful experimentation. Is a play ever really finished until it reaches the stage? (Going further, we might ask if it is ever finished even then.)

Secondly, another integral element of the production does not appear in the written script at all. Here I’m talking about the character listed as ‘The Trickster’, the strange, ethereal, white-clothed figure who lopes on and off stage with his microphone and leaps athletically through windows. Stephens writes in the introduction to the playtext that this character, created by Nübling, was inspired by a figure from European myth who “takes many guises and is able to release the subconscious of those he meets and the underbelly of his world”, a description that fits perfectly with his elusive role in the production. While he may seem incidental to the plot itself, he is central to the way in which we understand it and provides a striking demonstration of how script and production are melted together.

But perhaps it is a false division to keep talking about script and production as though they were two divorced entities. Yes, there exists a playtext version of Three Kingdoms that Stephens sat down and wrote and that we can now read, but it was never intended to be performed in this incarnation. It is misleading to talk about Nübling’s treatment in the same way in which we might describe a radical reinterpretation of a classic text by a maverick director, because Stephens wrote this play for Nübling. As Dan Rebellato so effectively hammers home, this was not the director poaching the text of the writer and running amok; Stephens deliberately left room for the direction and actively collaborated in the rehearsal room process. So really, there is nothing but the production.

Structure – One thing that leapt out and slapped me on the face second time round – apart from the production’s extraordinary visuals – was the overarching structure of the piece. It made me wonder how I could have missed so much of it initially (I’m inclined to blame all the deer heads, strap-ons and full-frontal nudity, which have the tendency to be a little distracting). It also made me doubly frustrated at all the mainstream reviews that point to the piece’s meandering self-indulgence, as beneath all the deer heads, strap-ons and naked actors there is a carefully planned play full of eerie symmetries and striking symbolism, from which all of those supposedly self-indulgent elements essentially spring.

I could go into all of this in detail, but Matt Trueman has beaten me to it, comprehensively and analytically picking apart the structure and the symbolic use of deer, wolves and grass. It is (duh!) the food chain, the cycle of life. The idea that “shit doesn’t go away”, graphically illustrated by the faeces smeared on the set, also slots into this natural, cyclical structure and resonates powerfully with the issues that Three Kingdoms is grappling with. We go through every stage of the cycle and cannot escape it, thus being, as I spoke about before, somehow complicit in the sex-trafficking trade being shown on stage. We are all a part of the system in which this trade operates. It is about demand and supply, with sex becoming a commodity that has a demand as stable and constant as that for food and water. As one of the Estonian gang puts it, “the real advantage in our market is that demand is always, has always been and will always be stable”.

One severely neglected area in my previous write-up was the play’s massive inherent criticism of capitalism and market economics, which I touched upon only in relation to the discussion of the market that takes place during the first scene in Estonia. This was mainly because my mind was taken up by other thoughts at that point, but I feel it should at least be mentioned if not fully unpacked. Because this is what is really at the rotting heart of this tale. The industries of pornography and sex-trafficking that are depicted here are symptomatic of a larger problem, facilitated by a world that is dictated by market forces; again, demand and supply.

By watching one of the pornographic films in which the murdered Vera appeared, the two detectives become not only complicit in the abuse of women (more on this below) but also in the commercial circuit that has allowed this industry to thrive in the first place, a cycle reflected by the cyclical nature of the food chain. And then of course the play is also cyclical, with the interrogation of Ignatius by the Estonian police at the end mirroring the opening interrogation of Tommy – this was clear first time around, but the symmetries are even more resonant than I had initially realised. Three Kingdoms is nothing as tidy as a circle, but it does loop back around in a shape that, going back to mirrors, seems to perfectly reflect the content.

Women – This is the biggie. First of all, I’m using the word women and not misogyny because, despite this being raised by a number of separate individuals in relation to Three Kingdoms, misogyny is not a word I ever used myself and I tend to lean towards Andrew Haydon in thinking that this word has a nasty way of closing down discussion, or at least making it difficult to respond. Also, despite the concerns I raised in my initial write-up, I would certainly not want to make the accusation that anyone involved in this production comes from a misogynistic standpoint, because in fact I believe that the opposite is the case.

Even so, this has been one of the most emotive and pressing issues to crop up around the production. Perhaps the most upsetting blog I’ve read on the matter was Sarah Punshon’s, which articulates a very personal reaction to the violence against women that is depicted throughout Three Kingdoms and subsequently made me question my own experience of the play. Yes, I was troubled and felt the need to raise such concerns when writing about the production, but this was more retrospective than anything. Only on reflection did the majority of my worries rise to the surface, and this was in any case influenced by the conversation that I had already read on Twitter between Chris Goode and Stella Duffy. While watching the play itself, a few grating moments aside, I was mostly swept along in the thrill of the production. Where this places me as a woman and a feminist I’m not sure.

So where to begin when addressing the question of how women are portrayed in Three Kingdoms? Firstly, I think we have to accept that some level of violence against women is inevitable when tackling subject matter such as that presented here. To attempt to deal with sex-trafficking without exposing the abuse at its core would be just as much of a betrayal, if not more than, portraying the victims on stage. Diagnosis, after all, is the first step towards cure. Whether or not it has to be portrayed quite in the way it is here is another question, although the violence is nowhere near as gratuitous as it might have been. This production wisely chooses to leave the majority of the brutality to our imaginations, and it is easy to forget amongst all the concern being expressed that we see far worse on our television screens nightly.

I was initially disappointed that we see so little from the perspective of the women upon whom the sex-trafficking trade being depicted most impacts, but now I am less sure how this would fit into the production that Stephens, Nübling et al have crafted. Although it precludes the possibility of a more even gender balance in the cast (that is if we accept that casting must be done along gender lines, which is a whole other question in itself and one that is particularly interesting in relation to a play in which a male actor at one point takes on the role of a female prostitute), it feels vital to the production that this is a male dominated environment. If one or both of the detectives investigating the case had been female it would be a very different play and perhaps a less powerful one; grubby complicity takes on a big role here.

In dealing with this question, on whatever very basic level on which I am able to do that, I’m aware that I owe a response to Chris Goode, who commented on my original write-up as well as on Andrew Haydon’s blog. If I’m honest, I’m still grappling with his distinction between showing and making in theatre. Do we see theatre as simply depicting a situation or do we take that a step further and accept that theatre is also making that situation? This also goes another step further to what we think theatre is essentially for; is it there to hold up the mirror to life, as Hamlet would have it – to show us the state of things as they are – or to offer an alternative? Theatre can be powerful as a tool for exposing disgusting and unjust situations and making us feel that injustice, but if we’re already aware of those situations then what is the function of a further depiction? I’m asking a lot of questions, because I really don’t know.

Separately but related, Chris also suggested the need for a moratorium on the use of the word “exploring”, in response to marketing material that described Three Kingdoms as “exploring human-trafficking”. It all comes back to the idea I touched on previously about the precision of language, something that I sense Stephens is particularly attuned to in his writing. Exploring can mean a lot and suggests something fairly extensive, while it is questionable to what extent any work can fully “explore” the subject matter presented here. Words such as this are dangerous and I wonder if this is tangled up with the problem (if, that is, we perceive it as a problem) of the representation of women. Seen as an all-encompassing “exploration” of sex-trafficking, Three Kingdoms clearly falls short by denying the women involved a voice. If we view it more precisely as pulling apart the driving market forces and male complicity behind this disgusting trade, it seems a lot more successful.

In this argument I’m neglecting the many aspects of Nübling’s direction that confuse gender and representation further. Men frequently play women (although, as others have asked, why not vice versa?); a male corpse provides the backdrop for the scene in which Vera’s decapitation is graphically described; red herrings are dropped left, right and centre. I’ve also failed to mention that, though they might be outnumbered by men, there were of course women involved in the creation of this production. To simplify it all to the extent to which I am in part guilty of seems to be missing the point somewhat. Nothing in Three Kingdoms is simple, as my aching, slowly unravelling brain can attest to.

Despite the time I’ve given to the above, which is something I feel I should address as it’s become such a big issue and my earlier write-up was pointed to by others in relation to this issue, I worry that it is a reductive argument. This is undeniably an important element of the production and one that deserves our consideration, but not above and beyond everything else that’s going on in Three Kingdoms. It seems deeply unfair to everyone involved that this is what has grabbed arguably the most attention when, as I’ve said before, there is so much going on here. I only wish I had time to address it all in the detail it deserves, although I suspect that would require a book (or several).

[note: since writing the above, Exeunt have produced a much more thorough and intelligent discussion about the gender politics at play in Three Kingdoms, which I’d recommend anyone interested in this issue to have a read of]


I realise that this has mostly been a lengthy, meandering failure to articulate and work through thoughts that have been troubling me for the past few days, and that I have no solid answers. All I can say is that certainty is overrated. But I hope it’s clear that Three Kingdoms has got me thinking, thinking harder than I have in a long time, and it’s got plenty of others thinking too. If there is one thing to be certain about, it’s that this is not the end. If this production leaves no other legacy, which is hopefully not the case, it will at least have set a lot of minds into motion. And that alone seems worth celebrating.