In a collaboration that sees the theatre cultures of England, Estonia and Germany clash, divide and mold together, Three Kingdoms at Lyric Hammersmith, part of World Stages London, is a whirlwind of a production. Written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sebastian Nübling and designed by Ene-Liis Semper, these three theatrical forces transcend the cultural differences in their work to create a mixing pot of adventurous play and excitement. Three Kingdoms feels as if you’re Alice falling down the rabbit hole, experiencing a world turned on its head with precision chaos that questions, challenges and celebrates all our notions about theatre before finally re-emerging exhausted and dry-mouthed. Three Kingdoms is essential viewing, even if you’re left confused and drained as I was.
A prostitute’s head has been found in a bag washed up on a river bank, and it is the job of Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicolas Tennant) and Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts) to solve the crime. From CCTV footage and confessions their search sends them from England to Germany and finally to Estonia, tracing the elusive character of ‘The White Bird’. As they confront and question suspects, Inspector Stone’s lack of language skills sees him increasingly isolated; his frustrations and blind wanderings see him caught like a rabbit in the headlights before finally being trapped and caged – but did he catch his killer? Well, that would be too much to say…
Three Kingdoms is distinctly European in its form and presentation. Nübling’s direction tears apart Stephen’s dialogue, reimaginging characters, location and scenarios with brutal force. Some people mind regard this defiance against the words of a playwright to be a rebellious act, especially for a premier, yet Three Kingdoms doesn’t feel as if it’s been directionally comprimised. Nübling’s distinctive style is bold, the sort of boldness that sees brutal and vivid imagery working in both a harmonious and disruptive way with Stephens’s dialogue. Nübling’s attention to detail, coupled with what appears to be a chaotic desire to destroy Semper’s set design (it’s actually extremely robust given how forcefully objects and actors alike are thrown and beaten against it, but the intention feels like destroying), make for remarkable viewing. It is distinctly European, or perhaps it it is fairer to say German, in its presentation because no British director would take theatre to such limits without being rebuked as shambolic. Yet under Nübling’s direction the Lyric’s stage feels like a playground for the director and actors to explore Stephens multilingual play with intensity. It would be wrong to suggest that its an evening of pleasurable viewing; one does not take pleasure as such from it for you have to at times work to understand the systems at play, or to focus on the surtitling whilst watching the action unfold underneath. This isn’t theatre that leaves its audience unharmed, no, Three Kingdoms punches away at our intellectual understanding of theatre, and turns it into a visceral experience.
Perhaps one of the strengths of Three Kingdoms is its imagery that startles and excites the imagination. It holds perhaps one of the best presentations of a brothel I’ve ever seen, with actors wielding strap-ons and squirty cream representing visual orgasms, whilst another actor greases up a baseball bat. The imagery isn’t shocking, it’s direct, much like Stephens’s writing, which has its own sense of confrontation. The combining of actors from across three countries is surprisingly effective. Languages simultaneously weave around each other, leaving us as an English audience somewhat bemused at times. Language is a key part of Three Kingdoms, the inherent side effect of working with three collaborators from three differing countries and producing theatres. It means that whilst you may feel just as lost as the Detective himself, it’s encouraged within the work, particularly in the second act where a drug-fueled party (I’m really not sure what it was, but a party seems the most obvious conclusion), sees a good ten minutes of open-mouthed blankness as rituals merge with cathartic dancing, and heaven knows what else, as the audience are left waiting to find the connection.
With a strong ensemble of multinational actors, and a challenging and provocative creative collaboration, Three Kingdoms is a trippy but enthralling experience. One that not so much tingles your eyes as it pumps your stomach in equal measures. Be sure to be surprised, to be confused, but above all, to be enlightened as to how theatre can be presented in such a startlingly different and somewhat alien form.
Three Kingdoms is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 19th May. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.