at the Lyric Hammersmith, Thursday 17th May 2012
I am well aware that I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this one. By now, it feels like most of the young theatre-going population has seen Three Kingdoms, and the debate which has ensued online has proved that the production is nothing if not provocative. In my opinion, the very fact that Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling have created such a ruckus is proof enough that this is a brilliant piece of theatre; after all, isn’t that one of the main purposes of theatre – to inspire discussion? And if you don’t agree that this is a game-changer for the shape of British theatre, I’m afraid you’ve been proved wrong already; by putting it in these terms, bloggers and theatremakers alike have now set a benchmark. Even if not all British theatre ends up like this (and that, naturally, is extremely unlikely), a whole generation of practitioners have just had their brains pushed into action.
Now let’s be clear about this. This is by no means the best production you’ll see this year nor even the best new play of 2012. Quite aside from the much-discussed – though arguable – misogyny, Stephens’ script isn’t overly exciting in narrative structure and Nübling’s production fails to really affect an audience. But where Three Kingdoms excels (and the reason why it will be influencing British theatre in the next decade) is in its ideas and refusal to patronise its audience. Unlike many shows currently performing in the West End, the production team here wants us to actively question and consider what is happening on stage rather than simply guzzle it up; we aren’t treated as consumers but as adult, thinking human beings.
I’m ignorant about Estonian theatre, so it’s difficult for me to understand exactly where Ene-Liis Semper’s home culture permeates Three Kingdoms, but it’s clear that the visual tradition of German theatre and the linguistic basis of British theatre are placed together so they may interrogate and shed light on one another. Stephens’ poetic and – for want of a better word – deep text often sheds light on the carnivalesque imagery in Nübling’s direction and vice versa, whilst Semper’s design accommodates the shifts in the dialogue from stark realism to utter surrealism.
The play focusses around the character of Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) who, with his associate Detective Sargeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts), travels to Germany and Estonia to understand the death of a prostitute working in London. Stephens raises questions about the work and trustworthiness of the authorities in Europe and manages to highlight some of the issues surrounding sex trafficking, such as freedom of choice and quality of life, but in themselves the themes of the play are not that ambitious or challenging.
What is subversive, however, is Nübling’s unashamedly theatrical representation of the script, which uses excess to comment on excess and gratuitous violence to examine our violent world. Some have argued that these aspects simply indulge in the very ideas they rail against, but they forget that we are viewing a stylised representation of these acts so that we may be alienated from the subject and attempt to comprehend the immoralities. To me, this argument feels like a more adult version of the “video games create murderers” debate; the audience is intelligent enough to understand that what is occurring on stage is not okay. Before we can begin to tackle problems in the world we should at least be mature enough to face and discuss them.
There is an elegant simplicity to Semper’s box design, which draws attention to the blemishes on its surface like the pencilled height lines and blood in the corner, left in plain view from previous performances and reminding the audience that what we’re watching is a fictional performance. The various entrances and exits create a liberating claustrophobia, entrapping the cast even though there is a way out. Through the bar-window at the back of the box, cleaners creep along as if on a conveyor belt, and heads pop up unannounced. Though it’s utilitarian, is also houses the spectacle of Nübling’s vision.
Lars Wittershagen’s music adds yet another layer to proceedings, containing within it a quality which seems to halt the show when it’s used. The diversity of songs used is both comedic and exciting, as the heady words of, for example, the Beatles is juxtaposed brilliantly with the bleak world on stage. Risto Kübar’s performance as the singing ‘Trickster’ gives the notes an ethereal air.
The different styles of acting utilised for this production heighten the collaborative nature of the work, emphasising the differences in cultures and language. There isn’t one weak performance, but Tennant, Roberts and Steven Scharf as Steffen Dresner stand out; they are the emotional and comedic heart of the piece, and if it wasn’t for them the narrative thrust may fall apart. Tennant is the everyman and, try as he might to be liberal, thoughtful and kind, he is constantly let down by the world around him. His questionable morals and dubious background serve to make him all the more engaging, and though he doesn’t bare as much as other actors physically, his emotional depth is nothing short of remarkable.
I am in no way an expert on European theatre, but what’s fantastic about Three Kingdoms is that, compared to the few productions I’ve seen on the continent, it fits in visually. Particularly brilliant is the party scene towards the end of the play, complete with dancing transvestites and trippy music, revelling in its own amateur nature while chaos occurs downstage. The simplicity in the motifs repeated in the first and last scenes is equally memorable, as are the sequences representing travel between locations. Nothing is simply ‘shown’, and Nübling always takes care to use the most inventive way of staging any given moment; this is theatre, after all, so why should things be done exactly as they are in real life?
The only thing groundbreaking about this is that it’s being performed on British soil; otherwise this is very similar to the kind of theatre our cousins across the channel are accustomed to. This is collaboration in its truest form, where different parties work together and use one another’s ideas to shape a creation; in Three Kingdoms, text, design and direction go hand in hand in hand, and it’s not difficult to see similar projects coming along in the future, perhaps with different permutations of which nationality fills which role. And, as the world gets ever smaller and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to travel, more young theatre makers will experience work abroad, until there comes a time when the British theatre establishment isn’t idiotic enough to call itself “the best in the world” but instead attempts to become part of a more open, invigorating and global discourse.