The Lyric Hammersmith prides itself on showcasing boundary-breaking productions – typically involving physicality, fun and riotous subversion of theatrical convention. Recently, Edward Bond’s Saved and a modern adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have typified these characteristics, but new play Three Kingdoms, by award-winning British playwright Simon Stephens, is the most radical of the lot.
Three Kingdoms sees two English detectives, investigating a decapitated head found in a river, track its gruesome origins through the disorientating demimondes of Germany and Eastern Europe and the horrors of sex-trafficking.
Part of the World Stages London initiative – a collaboration between international theatres – the play is the combined vision of Stephens, German director Sebastian Nubling and exciting Estonian theatre group NO99. Despite the three creative inputs, Stephens is adamant there were no artistic compromises, “The play absolutely reflects the vision I had at the beginning – I know how Sebastian works. It was like I was handing it over to be attacked by the ferocity of Sebastian’s imagination. No British director would think about doing what Sebastian does – he finds the visuals in the text.”
The plot becomes obscured by phantasmagoric moments, reminiscent of performance art, featuring complex and intricate choreography. “The sequences are the result of days of improvisation. But then every movement and every gesture is meticulously planned – the Estonians are known for their incredible athleticism.” The physicality is offset by a moody visual environment that is clearly influenced by film – most obviously Lynchian. The stage, white and bare but illuminated by a palette of primary colours, looks like a Stanley Kubrick set, and the scenes created are similarly disturbing – particularly a surreal orgy scene.
“It was great on opening night hearing the reaction of the audience,” says Stephens. “Some loved it, others walked out at the interval. The play is pretty shocking, with the strap-ons and so on… but it is also, like all my plays, an interrogation of language and a search for truth.”
The dialogue is deliberately obtuse and reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. In fact, the script contains three different languages with subtitles projected above, which adds another layer of artifice and decoding. As the play progresses the need to decipher language reflects the increasingly alien scenarios the characters find themselves in, as their subconscious desires are projected.
Some would find the play’s tendency towards the visually provocative overwrought; but this kind of intense saturation of meaning in every visual, action or exchange is so different from usual British theatre that it is refreshing just to be enjoyably overwhelmed. It is mesmerising. And the spectacle is not to be missed. The Lyric Hammersmith strikes again!
Three Kingdom’s is open at The Lyric Hammersmith until Saturday May 19th.
Text: William Severs
Photography: Ene Liis Semper