Three Kingdoms

Hammersmith Lyric, until May 19 2012. [With Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia's Teater NO99]

Three Kingdoms is an ambitious collaborative work that pulls together the best of Britain, Germany and Estonia in the shape of playwright Simon Stephens, director Sebastian Nübling and designer Ene-Liis Semper. If Simon Stephens is a well-known name on the British stage thanks to critically-acclaimed plays like Wastewater and Punk Rock, the general lack of recognition for the other two is more a result of our insular Anglo-American approach to theatre rather than any lack of talent on their part: Sebastian Nübling works with Munich Kammerspiele, whilst Ene-Liis Semper co-founded Teater NO99 in 2004, and I am reliably informed by Estonian cultural emissaries that they are generally regarded as being towards the top of a vibrant (?) theatre scene in Estonia.

This trio of talents have rather curiously taken it upon themselves to work with a narrative that would not seem out of place airing on ITV in three parts on successive Tuesday nights. Three Kingdoms begins by giving every impression of being a staged version of a TV crime drama; bleak scenes of cold, stained police rooms, dysfunctional domestic relationships and stereotypical Russian gangsters.

As the narrative begins to open out the ambition of the play starts to be revealed. Increasingly the action takes on a woozy, slightly sickening feel as the audience watches events as the alienated Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) sees them, rather than his bi-lingual partner, Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts).

Underpinned by songs performed in a rootless, disaffected style by a nameless guide, Three Kingdoms transforms itself into a Lynchian-take on Scandinavian crime dramas. A revolving gallery of grotesques are introduced within a recognisably earthly but bizarrely off-kilter world that is so reminiscent of Lynch that one half-aspects the arrival of a character wearing an oxygen mask.

Working together, although it is impossible to know whose hand was responsible for which element, Stephens’ play fuses together a functional crime story with a far more interesting story of spiralling alienation and cultural disconnect. Nübling and Semper add layer upon layer as the play moves from country to country, so the play feels that it moves stylistically away from traditional British theatre as Stone moves further from his own culture. What starts as a realist set in a British jail becomes hyper-realist Germany before finally ending with fragmentation in Estonia. As Stone’s alienation peaks, the world around him morphs into a surrealistic sequence and the walls of reality come down.

It is surprising that there are so few attempts to take tropes that are successful in other genres and adapt them for the stage. Whilst it is not unusual to transplant films wholesale into theatre – one only need witness the success of Ghost or Legally Blonde to see there is an audience for this – it is much rarer to see an attempt made to reinvent a classic of one genre in another.

Crime drama is one of the big hitters in the world of TV but it tends to have a very linear, action-driven narrative that is not ideally suited to the stage. However the arrival of Scandinavian writers with detectives who are not just tortured souls, but cultured, tortured souls in picturesque landscapes, seems to have changed the game. The inner-life of the detective became as interesting as his actions. British policemen, in fiction, may also suffer from similar torments but it is much more likely to manifested externally in the form of excess drink or violence rather than the kind of introspective self-analysis favoured by Wallender and his ilk.

One feels that Stephens’ has taken the Scandinavian style and looked to see how the stage can draw out the isolation of the characters. A real success of the production is that, despite occasional longueurs in its 3hr running time, it manages to maintain the fast pace of a thriller whilst ensuring that it is secondary to the study of alienation. Stone’s experience is presumably mean to be seen as a parallel journey to the trafficked journey and, like them, he finds himself passed from country to country, having to rely on others  to translate his surroundings.

A clash of styles is inevitable given the challenges of three theatre companies, three countries and three languages. There are occasional moments where Stephen’s dialogue is not really suited to the determinedly non-naturalistic direction and staging. There was also a very fine line between showing the passive and anonymous role women play in these stories and glorifying the implicit sexual violence in the relationships. This was particularly evident in a troubling scene set in Estonia where the criminal gang humiliate a near-mute servant, and it is an aspect of the play that jars significantly with the finesse shown else where.

Despite the bleak subject matter, Three Kingdoms is a refreshing change for the British stage. It is unusual to watch something so clearly inspired by European theatre, and there was the sense that risks were being taken with the audience – a scene involving a German brothel and a baseball bat was a lot more than many of the regular Lyric brigade was expecting from its 16+ rating- that are all too rarely seen in this country.

It is also interesting to see an attempt to intellectualise the humble crime drama. By placing the genre in a new medium, a new range of possibilities opens up. It provides a different perspective and allow a freedom that would be constrained by film or TV

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