Three Kingdoms, an ambitious collaboration between Simon Stephens (writer, English), Sebastian Nübling (director, German) and Ene-Liis Semper (designer, Estonian), is difficult to ignore. In fact, it left much of the audience gaping in disbelief and has already goaded a respectable reviewer into claiming that only those “debauched beyond redemption” could actually enjoy the spectacle on stage. It is hard to imagine a better endorsement, but Three Kingdoms is more than simply disturbing: it is also highly entertaining. This volatile combination is what makes it both wildly unpredictable and essential viewing.
Stephens, in gleeful collaboration with Nübling, places a police thriller on a collision course with a toy box of experimental German drama and unfettered nudity. We arrive part way through a Pinteresque police interrogation that quickly becomes a dark, human trafficking thriller. The trail starts right outside the Lyric itself, with a severed head in a suitcase and an encounter in the William Morris pub. Two detectives are whisked on a hallucinatory journey to Estonia via Germany. One, Detective Inspector Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Stone, finds reality breaking down all around him. Before long he has visited a sordid and very naked porn shoot; been menaced by a variety of Baltic gangsters; mysteriously pursued by a woman who looks, and smells, like his own wife; downed bucket cocktails; and become complicit in brutal acts.
It’s a riot of inventive physical theatre that draws explicitly on a wide selection of cultural influences, from Dario Fo to David Lynch. There’s even a strong flavour of the 1980s TV version of Smiley’s People, with straight-laced English authority dropped into unhinged, German underworld settings. From the opening moments, introduced by a tall, white-suited crooner like something from an Estonian Lynch film, it is clear this is a thriller where only the unexpected can be guaranteed. The evening features remarkable, bizarre song-based sequences, influenced by the physical style of companies such as Told By An Idiot and Filter, whose Ferdy Roberts features as detective number two. These include an unforgettable performance of ‘Rocky Raccoon’ and a climatic rendering of PJ Harvey’s ‘The Last Living Rose’ by a man in drag, amid a danse macabre featuring call girls in deer heads, Estonian pimps, a corpse and a chorus of cleaners, whirling around the hapless Iggy. Elsewhere a woman uncurls from a suitcase in which she has been smuggled; a mortician gruesomely dissects an apple; thugs beat up the set; and people dive through windows at every opportunity. Underneath all this is Stephens’ sharp, clever dialogue, which delivers moments of hilarity and of true horror.
Three Kingdoms is far from flawless. There are problems with pacing, and the action tends to meander between its accomplished set pieces. Half an hour should be shaved off the 3 hour running time. However, 30 minutes is well worth sacrificing in exchange for an evening of startling, sometimes staggering, theatre that seems well on its way to becoming a cause célèbre. What a shame it has such a short run.
Three Kingdoms is part of the World Stages London season, involving eight London theatres. It is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 19 May. Tickets: £12.50- £30