If the word extraordinary was made to be applied to a piece of theatre, Simon Stephens’ latest play is surely it. The process of getting Three Kingdoms to the stage of the Lyric Hammersmith alone is an extraordinary and unlikely achievement, facilitated through a collaboration between the Lyric, the Munich Kammerspiele and Estonian company Teater NO99 as part of World Stages London, with visionary German director Sebastian Nübling at the helm. The resulting creation is explosive, surreal, disorientating, anarchic, beautiful, messy, visceral and dreamlike – there are simply not enough adjectives to encompass all that this theatrical experience manages to be over three dazzling, hallucinatory hours.
Crafted as a detective thriller cloaked in bizarrely disarming imagery, the grimy, disturbing backdrop to Stephens’ multi-stranded work is the global sex trafficking trade. The play opens as a woman’s severed head is washed up along the River Thames, a murder that is connected to the streets of Berlin and the gangs of Estonia, and one that initiates a sprawling hunt by two British detectives to find those responsible. As language barriers blur meaning and East and West violently collide, Nübling’s production becomes increasingly surreal, a dreamlike visualisation of the dislocating effect of travel. Lost in translation gains new meaning, particularly for Nicolas Tennant’s dogged Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone, cast adrift in an alien culture.
Specialising in the surreal, this production is at its best when dealing in nightmarish metaphor. Prostitutes don deer heads while wolf-masked men lurk in the shadows; a mortician hacks away grotesquely at an apple; a woman painfully unfolds her limbs from a suitcase. Music, meanwhile, provides a haunting accompaniment, as romantic lyrics overlay sexual brutality with a sinister irony.
there is a dark intensity to the words Stephens has written that emerges most powerfully through striking monologues
Stephens’ script, like Ene-Liis Semper’s stunningly messy set, takes a battering as it is bashed into creative shape, offering an intriguing example of trust between a writer and a director. While much of this is about the staggering visual dynamic, there is a dark intensity to the words Stephens has written that emerges most powerfully through striking monologues. In a play about the devastating effects of sex trafficking upon women, however, the women in question remain conspicuously silent, raising troubling questions.
As it nears its destination via a hedonistic ride through Estonia, Nübling’s creation threatens to become bloated with its own unfathomable catalogue of strange images, but however flabby, Three Kingdoms remains horribly, hypnotically compelling. A disturbing, startling and bewildering experience, but an essential one.
Runs until 19th May