Three Kingdoms

Three Kingdoms is a new collaboration between German director Sebastian Nübling, Estonian designer Ene-Liis Semper, and British writer Simon Stephens. Respecting the equality of that collaboration, the show is performed in three languages, and the words, production, design are all balanced, none given priority over the others. The production opened in Tallinn in September last year, moved to the Munich Kammerspiele a month later and now has begun a run at the Lyric Hammersmith, prior to its move to Berlin.

Let me start with the headline. This is intense, nasty, dark, funny, haunting theatre. I doubt I’ll ever forget it. I loved it. 

What’s Three Kingdoms? This is a delicate one. I could describe the plot - in which two British detectives, exploring the beheading of an Eastern-European prostitute, journey to Germany and Estonia, to find her murderer and uncover a world of pornography, prostitution and people trafficking. But that’s not really the show. The show is a journey into the underside of our cultural imaginary; it’s a performance that explores the newly permeable boundaries between nations, between people, between desire and the possible, between right and wrong, between self and other, between who I am and who I am. The first ‘scene’ of the play is an extended interrogation scene between the detectives and a young guy, caught on CCTV throwing a holdall containing the prostitute, but as the investigation proceeds the tone and style become increasingly dreamlike and then nightmarish. By the end, the very idea that there is a simple distinction between perpetrator and investigator seems absurd. As the story unfolds and uncovers the global patterns of pornography, criminality, and violence, this network comes to characterise the performance itself.

It’s so boring to do battle with the critics all the time, but the minor furore that has been kicked off tells us something about our peculiar new writing culture. To read some of the critics, you would think that what has happened here is that a play has been seized unwillingly by a director who has obscured its plot by piling all sorts of irrelevant and shocking imagery on top of it, including a meaningless series of animal heads. Thus, the result is a mess, the triumph of director’s theatre, and a laughable departure from settled and sensible British theatre convention.

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None of that description is true. None of it. 

First, the play was written for Sebastian Nübling. Simon Stephens has been developing a writing style that leaves space for the director. The published text is large, generous, sprawling; it asks to be intervened in, to be selected from, to be cut. It reminds me of Howard Barker’s The Ecstatic Bible, a play that would probably take 12 hours to perform and has never been performed in its entirety. But even in more conventional theatre, J B Priestley always deliberately overwrote his plays, on the understanding that a particular production would find its own path through the material, its own emphasis, its own interests and could therefore cut it accordingly. Hamlet is enormously long in its fullest textual variant and is almost always cut, without demur.

Second, and following from the previous thought, if Simon’s intention is to offer a text to be cut about, interpreted, selected from and collaborated with, Nübling has been doing the good old-fashioned British thing of respecting the playwright’s intentions.

Third, the production’s imagery is entirely drawn from the text. In that sense, it’s a very conventional piece of work. Simon Stephens has written a play - I reckon - in a very uncensored way; it feels to me like he’s pushed on through the writing, not wanting to decide to protect arcs and realist anchors, but just to follow the imagery and his imagination, no matter where it takes him. And the production respects that, producing its imagery the way that our dreams are studded with randomized fragments of the previous day. An early reference in the interrogation scene to The Beatles provokes a strange series of aggressive puns from the detectives. This already serves to dislodge language from literal meaning which is amplified later on when the German detective who is their liaison in Hamburg goes into raptures about the White Album, culminating in his painfully slow phonetic performance of one of that record’s least essential moments, ‘Rocky Raccoon’. Later the curious otherworldly riddler played by Risto Kübar sings a slow, ethereal version of ‘Golden Slumbers’, summoning up a sudden wealth of feeling, sentiment, and affection, that the show’s dirty bare walls never otherwise see. None of this is ‘realistic’, of course. 

Fourth, nor are the animals. The image that is reproduced everywhere and I’ve reproduced above is of a woman in underwear and fur coat, with a deer head. Some critics seem to have been embarrassed by this image, because they dismiss it with those ghastly half-jokes that critics like Quentin Letts seem to specialise in. And yes it’s embarassing; it’s unsettling. It’s a strange image because it’s frightening and it’s also sexy. The heels, the fur coat are classic fetish items. The woman walks on like a deer, her vertiginous heels making her look like the animal just before the lion attack of so many nature documentaries. Vulnerable, beautiful, timid, haunting. In the third act, the Estonian gang taunt a woman as ‘Pitsu’, the Estonian equivalent of ‘Fido’ - she’s a dog, an animal, a lower form of life, and thus available to be used. While I found my own feelings about the image engaged in all their confusion, I don’t find it a difficult image to understand. The play begins with a distinction between the methodical investigation of the police and the animal brutality of the murderer. But these categories blur as the show goes on and the boundaries between brutal instinct and rational enquiry, between desire and restraint break down. It works by acknowledging the theatre’s visual dimension, its transactions between stage and auditorium; why are we watching this show? Do we want to see the killer brought to justice? Or are we, just a little, or quite a lot, interested to see more of this violence, this degradation, this abuse? Are we high-minded theatregoers or voyeurs?

None of the production’s imagery is particularly obscure, by the way. As I was watching it, I wondered what the critics who puzzled over the deer’s head would make of Donnie Darko (‘a perfectly simple story about adolescence in the American suburbs, obscured by some confusing flashbacks and a silly actor in a rabbit suit’) or even Monsters Inc. (‘a potentially powerful thesis about the evils of corporate America, weakened by a reliance on some rather implausible technology and a mystical belief in the existence of monsters’).

Fifth, has Nübling obscured the plot? No. The plot is an opportunity to enter into a world that undermines the architecture of plot - causality, distinction, morality, justice - and instead gives us a vision of our cultural imaginary in which our own world is sustained by cruelty and horror. One review, describing the complex plot, compares it to Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but worries that this production obscured the details of it. These are very pertinent reference points: does anyone, seriously, read or watch The Maltese Falcon and follow exactly what’s going on? And does anyone, seriously, think that’s the point? The hard-boiled detective story, film noir, and the David Lynch thriller use the metaphysics of crime to launch us beyond a world of blame and responsibility to something much more troubling, the dependence of innocence on guilt. And that is a picture of our world, the way that transnational movements of goods, labour and services have conspired to allow the New Global Slavery, the world-spanning networks that deliver to your hotel room an Estonian woman who is guaranteed to do A-Levels and CIM, or, to your computer images of the same. To complain that the plot is too convoluted is really to complain that the world is convoluted. It’s like blaming war artists for war.

Sixth, is it a mess? It’s messy, certainly. There’s a disgusting series of faecal handprints on the rear wall. The stage floor is variously smeared with apple juice, lubricant, cream, coffee, alcohol. The walls bear the marks of previous performances; in the upstage left corner we see faint spatterings of blood that is only actually spattered in the last half hour; downstage left two jagged patches of grey made up of pencil lines are explained when the detective measures his and the English detective’s height against the wall. There is excess, yes of course, grotesque excess. Most notably, the scene where the detectives interrupt a pornographic film shoot and we are shown an impressionistic riot of symbolic perversity, enormous strap-ons, anal penetration, facials, fetish gear. But it’s a depiction of excess, rather than excess in itself. Or rather - because that suggests something rather distanced - it’s an experience of excess that is intended to immerse us in the disorientation of stepping into that room. It’s also very funny, in a Bakhtinian sense, a kind of grotesque lower-body riot of organs, objects and their interpenetration. But it’s very precisely chosen and placed; it marks a sharp gear change in the performance, around 75 minutes in. It also creates the dreamworld by showing a kind of terroristic attack on Global Gender Security, after which the sexual and gender identity and propriety of none of the characters seem stable. Are the English detectives seducible? By men or women? Are they seduced? It becomes impossible to say. There is one moment where I did think it was messy and excessive, a lengthy physical sequence set to a stripped down version of P J Harvey’s ‘The Last Living Rose’. But even here it’s properly placed: it’s the complete breakdown of narrative movement, of spatial organisation, of character. We can no longer know who is responsible, whether distinctions of place are meaningful, if we’re dreaming or awake, and the imagery places us at the heart of this collapse.

Seventh, is this the triumph of director’s theatre? No, if you think director’s theatre is always the crude violation of a play. I’m sure that has happened, but it happens, too, in British theatre within the new writing tradition, where a bit of bad casting or a misjudged set, a tin-eared or tone-deaf director, fail to convey the virtues of the writing. But here, Sebastian Nübling is responding generously to the writing: not just to the story, but the feel of the writing, the way it was written, what the writing does not what the writing means. It’s a really sophisticated and impressive piece of work.

Eighth, is this a departure from good old British theatre practice. No it isn’t. Yes, it’s a departure from what we say we do, but it’s not a departure from what we do. The caricatured British practice is to perform the play ‘properly’ as the author intends. But we know don’t we - we know this - that any play worth putting on is worth putting on again, in a different way. We go to see new productions of plays because we want to see something different. Good plays contain multitudes. They can’t be performed properly; they are always interpreted. Now, there are good things about putting on plays the way the author intends, in the sense that playwrights learn from seeing some of their half-formed ideas realized in performance. It’s a system that allows playwrights to get better, to write more richly, to be more daring, because they can learn from performance. But a playwright, qua playwright, does not have an intention about every detail of the performance. If they do, they are a director. In this instance, as I’ve said, Sebastian Nübling is following Simon’s intentions in getting inside the play, turning it inside out, shaping and unshaping it in rich, complex ways.

Finally, I’m a playwright and I’m really, really into playwriting. Boy, do I ever love playwriting. I like Simon Stephens as a playwright and I always love seeing and reading his plays. But I feel that the debates about this kind of performance suggest a deep misunderstanding, indeed mystification, of what playwrights, directors, designers, and actors do. We always collaborate. A play is both a complete literary object and a fragment that needs to be completed in performance (that’s why plays are such fascinating and strange objects). A production must - and always does - add things that aren’t in a play. It’s always an interpretation. This is as true of Sebastian Nübling as it is of Max Stafford-Clark. 

In this instance, a particularly bold and successful collaboration has created a stark, frighteningly persuasive picture of the sexual atavism of the globalising world and the way our own desires are part of that, however we might tell ourselves otherwise. If the critics could only see it, Simon Stephens, Sebastain Nübling, and Ene-Liis Semper have revived the state of the (inter)nation play.


The broadsheets have, mostly, fumbled the ball on this one. Much better commentary here:

  1. •Daniel B Yates on Exeunt 

  2. •Matt Trueman on his blog, Carousel of Fantasies

  3. •Miriam Gillinson on her blog, Sketches on Theatre.

  4. •Catherine Love on her blog, Love Theatre.

  5. •Andrew Haydon on his blog, Postcards from the Gods.

Andrew tweeted earlier this week ‘Is Three Kingdoms the next online generation's Katie Mitchell Attempts on Her Life?’ and, as someone who blogged combatively about Attempts in 2007, I think he might be right. In fairness the papers usually have little space to discuss a very big experience, but thereby hangs the tale. Is online the only space that can deal adequately with these experiences? 

Catherine addresses very well the problem that the production may reproduce the misogyny that it’s trying to critique. I haven’t addressed that directly, except that I think the performance is trying to engage our own voyeurism - if voyeurism there is - as a way of engaging our responsibility. But that could be a very conservative move. It’s certainly the case that the women on stage feel like victims of the production almost as much as of the characters. But take a look at Catherine Love’s blog for a much more developed discussion.