Three Kingdoms: New Ways of Seeing, Experiencing, Expressing

If it is possible for one piece of theatre to be an argument against the traditional model of theatre criticism, then Three Kingdoms makes that point rather comprehensively over its messy, anarchic, thrilling three hours. Despite wrenching the obligatory, paltry 400 words out of my still slightly dazed brain, a part of me wants to go back smash them apart again. Simon Stephens’ latest play actively resists being weighed up and judged with a neat star rating within a tidy word limit; it sticks two fingers up, as it were, to the well made review.

To be completely honest, I left the Lyric Hammersmith on Tuesday evening in a state of confusion, disorientation and uncertainty. It was as though I had been submerged for three hours in a strange and baffling yet oddly captivating dream, one that frustrated at some turns and delighted at others. If someone had asked me, in the immediate moments after I vacated my seat in the auditorium, whether I liked Three Kingdoms, I would have struggled to answer them. “Like” strikes me as a word from a completely different vocabulary to the one in which this piece of theatre operates. In fact this whole production, directed by Sebastian Nübling in an extraordinary British, German and Estonian collaboration as part of World Stages London, seems to speak a different language to the one we are accustomed to in British theatre.

The strange irony of describing Three Kingdoms as dreamlike – which is the closest I can get to evoking its loopily surreal quality – is that I did in fact dream about the production in anticipation of seeing it. Yes, I was that excited. But my subconscious was incapable of creating anything as bizarre, visually imaginative and downright bonkers as what appeared on the stage of the Lyric Hammersmith. As in the image above, women don deer heads and are pursued by wolf-masked men; a gang of boxers violently pummel the soiled set; a strangely haunting, white-clad figure sings chilling pop song accompaniments; there is more lurid sexual content than you can shake a strap-on at.

I should perhaps point out that within the hallucinatory kaleidoscope of images there is a plot of sorts, and a detective plot no less, but this is far from your average whodunnit thriller. We begin in the middle of a police interrogation, as detective duo Ignatius and Charlie question a young man who has inadvertently thrown a severed human head into the River Thames. The forensic evidence points back to Europe, where the decapitated sex-worker has been trafficked from. With odd suddenness, the two detectives follow the trail back to the pimps and pornographers of Berlin and later – with Charlie inexplicably disappearing from the scene – to an Estonian sex-trafficking gang.

Without knowing much about European theatre – a lack of knowledge that I’m keen to remedy off the back of this – I would ignorantly speculate that the style and tone of the production shifts appropriately with the geographical location. Never is the writing more central than in the early London-based interrogations, reflecting the new writing culture of British theatre, with more than an echo of Pinter in the detectives’ swift back and forth of dialogue. As the action moves to Germany and later to Estonia, we are offered increasingly audacious visual imagery and an escalating physicality, as performers tumble through windows and spring startlingly from suitcases. It certainly feels many miles from British theatre, and bracingly so.

In this way, Nübling manages to create a disorientating visualisation of the dislocation of foreign travel, immersing us in cultures that are strikingly different to our own through the conduit of Ignatius, a man severely lost in translation and persuasively, energetically portrayed by Nicolas Tennant. In this sense, the perplexing surreality of the production is a resonant metaphor for the clash of cultures in an increasingly globalised world, where Europe is both sister and other.

Through the piece, Stephens and Nübling make us aware of our own strangely separate and insular status as an island nation, a culture that is supposedly part of Europe and yet distinctly divided from it. Our perceptions of this continent, and particularly of the still largely alien society of Eastern Europe, are both channelled and challenged. While the practice of sex-trafficking may be this play’s overt subject, the relationship between East and West demands an equally prominent place on the stage.

Related to this, language is another key concern, perhaps surprisingly in a production so anchored by the sensory. The very experience of having to read surtitles for much of the evening already puts a different slant on how this play is received, with the audience having to do the mental leg-work of reading and connecting both spoken and physical language. Translation also throws up its own issues, particularly as Ignatius is forced to rely solely on what German-speaking Charlie chooses to tell him, a potent illustration of the power of words and the fluidity of their meaning. Even when we are dealing only with English, words are important. Ignatius and Charlie verbally play with synonyms before finding the right fit, while a sentence such as “they sawed it not sliced it” (in relation to the woman’s decapitation) is an excruciating demonstration of how a slightly different word can have a vastly different effect.

While Nübling has clearly transformed Stephens’ script into a theatrical creation that is as much his own as it is the playwright’s (the word collaboration here feels fully justified), the words still dazzle on their own. There is a sharp precision to Stephens’ writing, conjuring an incisively perceptive vision of the world that emerges most powerfully through the short monologues that various characters speak. One character’s description of the market economics of sex trafficking is brutally wounding in its calculated logic; the analogy of a toilet to convey the message that “shit doesn’t go away” is a painfully apt one.

Dealing with Stephens’ script also brings me onto the relationship between writer and director, which is here figured strikingly differently to how we are used to it in this country. The respective places of the writer and the director in British theatre demand a whole other blog post, but it is worth briefly pointing out the extraordinary free rein that Stephens has given to Nübling, placing huge levels of trust in the director’s hands. Anyone interested in this area should read Alex Chisholm’s excellent essay for Exeunt, in which she questions the imposed division between “new writing” and “new work”. It is certainly worth considering whether the model posed by Stephens and Nübling could provide a way to bridge this gap in British theatre.

Moving on, in the multi-lingual environment that Stephens has created, pop music emerges as a common language. This clearly reflects Stephens’ own interests, but it also seems an appropriate demonstration of the wide-reaching penetration of some elements of culture and not others. There is a sinister irony to the way in which music is used, with romantic lyrics often clashing with the global commodification of sex and sexual violence that is being portrayed. One particularly haunting rendition of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers still has yet to release its grip on me.

As heart-pumpingly exhilarating as this production may be, however, I cannot quite offer Three Kingdoms my wholly unfettered praise. My main problem with the piece is the way in which it treats its female victims (a word I use with caution). Is silence the way to give these women a voice? Before criticising, I can wholly appreciate and understand the perspective of this production, which is itself a primarily male product. (To briefly digress, the word “product” here feels significant. As in the sentence I have just written, products are actively created by men – the product is the object, the men the collective subject – while women in this play are referred to by the Estonian sex traffickers as the passive “product” that they trade.)

On one level, it makes perfect sense. Three Kingdoms is shocking in its treatment of women, thereby shocking us as a result. The women in the piece are largely silent because the women they represent are living in enforced silence; it seems appropriate, authentic (another word that is tainted through its particular, unsavoury use by Stephens – see my earlier point about the importance of language?).

But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Here I’d like to refer you to an exchange on Twitter between Chris Goode (@beescope) and Stella Duffy (@stellduffy) that caught my attention before I had even seen the show myself and that sums up pretty comprehensively what I’m trying to get at:

@beescope: Three Kingdoms is hugely impressive, a near-perfect match (collision?) of writer, director and intrepid actors. Still frustrating though that nobody wanting to work in those modes wholly within the British system would ever get past the gatekeepers. Also wish it didn’t revel quite so much in the misogyny it’s describing.
@stellduffy: @beescope the difficulty of representing that which we’re trying to counteract/deal with.
@beescope: @stellduffy Yeah, for sure. But it’s extra troubling when the work so completely reproduces the malaise that there’s no critical leverage. If you make the victims essentially voiceless you can come awfully close to appearing not to have noticed there’s a problem.
@stellduffy: @beescope women are abused in life. re-creating a problem is not the same as creating an alternative. sigh.

(Apologies for the awful formatting of the above, I couldn’t get a decent screenshot)

There is something to be said for exposing an issue in all its brutal ugliness, but it is disturbing and worrying that it is so rarely exposed from the perspective of those upon whom it most impacts. Women are rendered speechless throughout, either by language barriers or by fear. In one of Nübling’s many powerful images, a half-clothed female figure silently irons in the background while men watch porn on a phone screen; another woman is unable to even communicate with the men who viciously insult her.

The production also seems to revel somewhat in the sexual violence it portrays, which is upsetting and troubling on the one hand but intriguing on the other. Such is the level of dazzling visual spectacle that we are invited to become complicit spectators; Stephens and Nübling recruit the audience as a living example of the dark forces within human nature that drive the acts they are depicting. Thought of in such a way, Michael Coveney’s protestation that anyone to enjoy this experience must be “debauched beyond redemption” takes on a slightly defensive air.

Also complicit are the two detectives, whose common gender – while it may exclude greater involvement from female characters – becomes darkly significant. At the same time as doggedly pursuing their case, they are implicit participants in the industries responsible for this murder. In a chilling scene in which they watch a recording of the young woman’s beheading, they become tainted spectators, and their attitude towards the women they encounter on their investigation hints at deeper problems. The concluding twist, which I am still wrapping my head around, seems to enhance Ignatius’ guilty complicity in what he is attempting to destroy; there are no heroes here.

Another potential criticism is the plot’s gradual descent into incomprehensibility, as we are assaulted with unfathomable image upon unfathomable image in a hedonistic Estonian finale that becomes increasingly hard to follow and digest. This frustrates the very British aim of getting to the bottom of what a play is “saying”, but perhaps it is the critical approach that is at fault rather than the production. We can be determinedly blinkered as a theatrical culture and have nurtured a sort of suspicion towards theatre that asks its audiences to feel and experience as much as it asks them to think.

The very lack of meaning here seems to create a new kind of meaning. Stephens has said that Nübling never asked him what he was trying to say in his script, and perhaps we should not ask either (I am aware of the hypocritical irony of making this statement several hundred words into a piece of writing that it is, on some level, doing just that). This is theatre that demands a new way of watching and I found myself feeling hampered by the nagging knowledge that I would have to write a formal review, pestered by the panic-inducing question of how I was going to critique it. I almost wish that I could have experienced this production without the critical handcuffs binding me.

Value judgements are usually, at least by the standards of the conventional review and the purpose it serves, what make a piece of critical writing. Readers want to know whether the reviewer thinks it is “good” or “bad” theatre (note the inverted commas); they want to know whether or not they should buy a ticket, which is a valid expectation to have from a review. In this case, although I obviously did give one in the form of a star rating, I felt to an extent incapable of offering my value judgement, my thumbs up or down. But as for whether others should go to see the show, I can only offer a resounding YES. This is theatre that needs to be consumed on an individual basis, and I suspect that it may be divisive, but it should be experienced. It is made to be experienced.

As if to prove my opening point about Three Kingdoms‘ inherent challenge to mainstream theatre criticism, the majority of the mainstream press have struggled with it and, in some cases, condemned it. This style of theatre is clearly not to everyone’s taste, but it saddens and frustrates me that many of the reviews do not even attempt to engage with it on the most basic level. Instead, there has been a startling dichotomy between the verdicts of what we might call the traditional critics and the response that the production is receiving through Twitter and online critical outlets. Perhaps this heralds the realisation that we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing. And perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

For some other interesting approaches to Three Kingdoms, try taking a look at reviews by Andrew Haydon and Daniel B. Yates. And for anyone wanting a more visual impression of the production (as only seems appropriate), see the Lyric’s trailer below: