Thursday, 10 May 2012

Three Kingdoms – Lyric Hammersmith

[this piece is more of very long failure to do justice to something I loved than a review]

If you're going to see one production of a new play by a British writer this year, it should probably be this one. If you've never seen any German theatre before, here is a pretty good place to start. If you have any interest in how a director can work with a script, this is essential viewing.

Put another way: the first half of this play is 1hr50. When the interval turned up, it felt like little more than an hour had passed. Overall, this three hour play felt like an hour and a half. Tops. Given that theatre is a medium that is often able to prolong one hour indefinitely, this is no small achievement.

At root Three Kingdoms is a detective thriller. The action opens in Hammersmith, London, with the unlikely-ly named detectives Ignatius and Charlie interrogating a young man who has been picked up on London's ubiquitous CCTV system throwing a sports bag into the river. The bag contains a head. The head, it eventually transpires, belongs to a trafficked sex-worker. The two detectives, apparently on a whim and independent of any formal hierarchy, decide to follow a lead which takes them first to Germany and then to Estonia.

The set is an oblong boxy room on the stage with the fourth wall cut off. It's painted in a very stained, neutral duck-egg blue or sky grey. There's an open door and a massive serving hatch (really huge – more like a landscape window that has been taken out) at the back. These give onto the kind of communal corridor common to tenement buildings across Europe. This space variously becomes police interrogation cells, departure lounges, hotel rooms, hotel lobbies, brothels, porn studios and yet more hotels, departure lounges and police cells again. It feels at once spacious yet somehow claustrophobic. The lighting tends to be artificial, variously suggesting strip-lights, or neon, or the gauche pink lighting of strip clubs and brothels.

Onto this script, and into this set, director Sebastian Nübling pours his talent for invention.

[You know all the stuff about the production, yes? Co-prod. between Munich Kammerspiele, Tallinn's Teater NO99 and Lyric Hammersmith – British writer Simon Stephens, German director Sebastian Nübling and Estonian designer Ene-Liis Semper. Actors from all three countries. Multi-lingual production. Lots of sur-titles.]

In the first scene, set in England, the English actors do English acting. The opening scene of police interviewing a young suspect is at once totally familiar and utterly different. There is no table; the room is the wrong size; there is no tape-recorder on the no-table. When they show the suspect photographs – a scene familiar from a hundred police procedural TV shows – one of the officers stick them round the walls not in the table. It's still perfectly played, and yet the differences somehow make you see it differently; makes you watch it harder from the off. It is suddenly like seeing theatre again, rather than like watching TV done live.

I *think*/It looks like the English actors in the section have also been encouraged into some more gestural (what I'll call with a massive generalisation) *German* acting. But already this scene has been preceded by an eerie version of an Estonian song, sung to a minimal, slightly trip-hop-sounding backing track by a tall, skinny, gaunt man in a slim-fitting white suit.

There's a lot to talk about and think about in Three Kingdoms; both in this production and in the text itself. In a lot of ways, even making that distinction feels a bit like failing the production. On the other hand, German critics tend to read the text of a play before they see the director's *version* of it. And this is the cultural context from which Nübling comes, so while feeling like the most organic synthesis of directorial vision and text imaginable, it is also possible to regard the two entities as entirely separate. For the record, I didn't read the play before I saw the production and haven't read it since. I would like to, but much more, I would already like to see the production again.

Without reading the text, however, my distinctions of who is responsible for what might be slightly off – I'll either correct in the text, or add footnotes later when I have – because we know that Nübling hasn't just staged every word in Stephens's script and heeded nothing but his stage directions. It feels embarrassing having to point this out, but having had a glance through the MSM reviews yesterday, it appears that it's still a point worth highlighting.

Indeed, the *seeming* near-binary opposition between this première of Three Kingdoms and Katie Mitchell's première of Wastwater last year feels usefully instructive. Where with Wastwater you came out feeling like you'd had every word of the play precisely underlined, here it seems surprising that there even are words sometimes, and it feels like you're absorbing something much more organic. This isn't to disparage Mitchell's approach one bit, by the way. But simply to note what a different experience Three Kingdoms is.

Part of the reason for this, of course, is that more than half the play (a guess) is performed in German and Estonian, so one is receiving language-based information not only as speech but also as written text.

Another part of the reason, however, is the way in which Nübling has directed the production. As I already suggested, it's pretty much impossible to describe the way that Nübling works better than Stephens himself does in the Lyric's trailer for the show:
 “Unlike a lot of British directors, he doesn't work from the inside out, but he has a kind of visualised realisation of the play that he imagines. And he stages that as a means of travelling into the play. He's never asked me what I'm trying to say with a play. It's not been anything he's interested in... He just wants to make a kind of musical energy, a kind of visceral muscle on stage, but he does it with tremendous intelligence and sensitivity.”
The best way I can think to articulate the way I understood the production is by comparing it to a sculpture. On one hand, yes, you can see the wood. The whole damn thing is wood. But at the same time, you're not just looking at a piece of wood, you're looking at the thing that the wood has been made into by a controlling intelligence. You can see the chisel marks, but at the same time you can marvel at how one thing has been made into another thing.

Except “a sculpture” might wrongly imply a kind of inertia. That would be wrong. There's a tangible energy here, not just that which is demonstrated by the electric physicality of the performers, but also in the spark of ideas – watching Three Kingdoms is like giving your synapses an electric shock.

It's worth talking about the “plot”, or the “narrative” or simply “the things that happen one-after-the-other”.

The script breaks down into an easily discernible three act structure – in fact, amusingly, on this level it's actually quite formally conservative as a play. Each of the acts is set in a different city and follows detectives Ignatius and Charlie as they try to track down the killer of Vera Petrova, a trafficked Estonian sex-worker, through a series of interviews, interrogations and meetings.

The tone here, though, is less the suspenseful police procedural, and much more like an increasingly hallucinatory involuntary journey. They interview one of Petrova's colleagues, a silent sex-worker, dressed in high heels, underwear, fur coat and a deer's head, with the aid of a Home Office Russian translator, and you start to feel the naturalism of their world slide away as their grasp on the situation gradually turns into the situation's grasp on them – an inexorable drag deeper and deeper into an increasingly sludgy world.

I should mention at this point that as well as being intelligent, surreal and all that other stuff, it's also very funny indeed. Much is mad of lost-in-translation jokes and the detectives themselves have a fine line in pop cultural banter.

By the time the interval turns up, the two detectives have found themselves in a porn factory in Germany – still no nearer to their goal and surrounded by actors wearing strap-ons, a naked camera-man roaming around the pink-lit corridor, with a dull repetitive soundtrack of mechanical moaning. Squirty cream stands in for faked ejaculate, while another naked man wipes tissues of excrement on the wall. It's at once bleak, funny and also far sexier than more or less anything the British put on stage. Ever.

After the interval we arrive in Estonia and there is another change of pace. In a subtle way, the production offers portraits of each country through a kind of distilled essence (perhaps even gentle pastiches) of their theatrical cultures. Where Britain opens with an almost Pinter-y dialogue, and where Germany inevitably collapses into mess and nudity, Estonia is represented by a violent athleticism and physicality. The four main Estonian actors conjure their country by pummelling the walls of the set with boxing gloves.

It is also here that the narrative's debt to the later films of David Lynch really kicks in, seeming to offer the sort of plot twist that makes a kind of non-iron-able Mobius Strip of the plot. Suddenly, from linear, it becomes circular but with a twist in it that means it can't be logically made back into a straight line.


This is perhaps the hardest thing in the piece to process. Assuming I haven't just got this totally wrong, it seems by the end, that Ignatius, the detective who speaks no other language but English, has become his own quarry. He might have woken up in an eastern European hotel room with a dead girl. He is interrogated, tortured – a domestic iron is pushed onto his hand, echoing the bandaged hands of ___ who he is interrogating in the first scene.


When a play takes this sort of jump outside the realms of the possible, it suddenly seems to become much more difficult to talk about. “What does that mean?” suggests itself as a question. Or even simply “What just happened there?” Are we meant to reconstruct our ideas of what happened through this new development? Is this sudden transformation intended as A Big Metaphor that we're meant to Get? It is disorienting in all these ways. Being willing to allow that disorientation to be a part of the whole experience of the play feels crucial.

I suspect, in part, this might be what other critics have objected to: the fact that, on one level, the play does stop “making sense” altogether – although I would argue that this precise moment actually generates a lot new *senses*. But it's not immediately pin-downable. And if someone believed their job was to pin down and explain, then this sort of thing is inevitably going to get on their wick.

There are plenty of screamingly obvious ways for an audience member to read this slippery final twist, and I have no intention of imposing any of my many, quite vague, and far from definitive impressions as to what it “meant”. In a way, this point, more than any other in the play, doesn't even demand “understanding” so much as “experiencing”. You can feel it rather than overthink it.

Of course the play does have “themes”. Many of them common to those in Wastwater, and, in a strange way, the Trial of Ubu. These themes seem to be on a continuum with Stephens's growing concerns – at least in his plays – about the size of the world and the way that the world operates as a global concern. Ideas about travel, cultural difference and globalisation recur. And behind all that, the internet, making the world at once feel like a much smaller, more accessible place but also emphasising its vastness; and within the internet, the pornography that seems to be almost the life-blood of the internet.

[as a side note, I'd say these particular preoccupations, and the way in which Three Kingdoms articulates them, puts Stephens into an artistic line-up alongside Chris Goode, Chris Thorpe, Chris Haydon and Andy Field much more interestingly, perhaps, than categorising him as a writer of New Writing like, say, Richard Bean, Mike Bartlett or David Eldridge]

Beyond discussing the work in terms of the playwright – as is, of course, traditional with a new play by a British writer in Britain – it's also worth thinking about the production in terms of where it sits both in relation to Nübling's work (of which I haven't really seen enough: the première of Stephens's Pornographie and Feridun Zaimoglu's Alpsegen (video trailer here)) and theatre more generally. Actually, in relation to these other two pieces directed by Nübling the comment I can really make is that it's very different to both those other pieces, which were also both very different to each other.

If Nübling has *a shtick*, then it's undetectable between these three productions. Which might not seem a point especially worth making, but I'd hate for anyone to go away thinking that he just does this to every play he directs – it's not just a case of stick everyone in animal masks, chuck in a bit of nudity, add some *movement* and off we go. Those precise elements were specifically chosen for *this* production of *this* play. In fact, the only thing I noticed being re-used from anything else that I'd seen was that some of the incidental music also features in the video trailer for Nübling's production of Pornographie (and presumably the stage version, although I don't remember it).

Visually, Three Kingdoms reminds me much more of moments from Gisele Vienne's I Apologize - which also featured animal masks, stage mess and similar qualities of frenetic movement or deliberation.

Admittedly, these elements are not especially unusual on the German stage – the Deutsches Theater production of Dennis Kelly's Taking Care of Baby had one character wearing a duck mask, for example, while their Othello made great use of a gorilla costume. Similarly, it seems almost futile to try to point to a specific example of the use of cumulative big mess on the German stage (I think this one was the first example I saw). That said, just listing a couple of examples I happen to have seen feels shallow and perhaps as pointless as a fledgeling German critic coming to London and totting up the number of actual kitchen sinks they see in any given month. It would be a novelty for them in much the same way as these elements are to the British.

If, in actuality, animal heads and mess are quite normal strategies, it feels like they should be either considered as part of the whole or not at all, in much the same way as we tend not to obsess over the sinks in domestic drama. The idea being propagated elsewhere that doing something this way is “self-indulgent” while having a set that features working taps is “normal” displays such a catastrophic level of self-satisfaction that their dismal failures of engagement can be dismissed out of hand (for the record, I'm not dissing working taps. Those are perfectly nice).

What's fascinating about Three Kingdoms is the way that it anticipates its critics and possible criticisms. There is actually enough said on stage for Michael Billington to have sketched out his usual précis of “what the playwright is saying” had he so wished. But at the same time, that's not how you actually do experience the play. Instead of drily noting they way that the Estonian gangsters typify a new globalised understanding of commerce – and in this case, the trade in women – these moments occur within a production that exists more as a series of feelings than thoughts.

While the play deconstructs or even attacks its own potential process of Orientalising (as it were, I nearly went for “Othering”) of Eastern Europe, the production and the performers almost deconstruct the texts deconstruction. Perhaps more problematically, I'm not fully convinced it quite clears the hurdle of how to portray subjugated women. There are not enough women in the cast, and the re-gendering only runs one way – i.e. a naked man with a head can double as the mortuary slab body of a beheaded woman and later turn up in drag/as a woman, but no women ever conspicuously play men (not least because there aren't enough in the cast to do so). At the same time, making this point feels like a peculiarly British sort of over-worrying, and oddly, something I'd have worried about a lot less in Berlin (it plays at Deutsches Theater on 7th June, where it'll share a building with a woman playing Othello and more full-frontal male nudity than you can shake a strap-on at).

Perhaps the most interestingly contradictory thing about Three Kingdoms, however, is how joyous and freeing this parable about misery, suffering, sex-slavery, brutality, cruelty and murder feels. And perhaps this is its finest achievement. Rather than simply showing us that forced sex and violence against women is a Very Bad Thing and that Europe, still living through the traumas of its history, is riven with darkness and violence, and that beneath the veneer of civilisation there is a rot so deep you'd be better of burning it – sending us into the night saddened and a bit depressed – it instead shakes us, makes us feel something and fires up our brains in entirely unpredictable ways (although that might be down to *us*, in this instance, being an audience of excitable Brits rather than coolly analytical Germans).

Still, it's bloody brilliant. Go and see it.

Photos screen caps from the Lyric Hammersmith trailer except the last which was taken by the designer...

1 comment:

Paul said...

Thanks so much for the review; I feel cleansed now, my having bathed in the ordure of too many of the MSM's misconceived responses of this.