Simon Stephens’s new play for World Stages London, Three Kingdoms, is one of those dubiously moral, violently sexist, critic-baiting and physically upsetting pieces of theatre that desperately wants its cake while eating it voraciously.
In a thinly disguised as a thriller set across England, Germany and Estonia, two detectives hunt down the murderer of a headless woman in Hammersmith as the show descends into the nightmare jungle of human trafficking and the vice trade.
You know you’re in trouble when everyone suddenly dons wolves’ heads, sex aids and bondage gear for a lads’ night out in Tallinn. In fact, what happens to Nicholas Tennant’s gamely resilient and much abused detective inspector Ignatius Stone is “a bit of a holiday” that goes horribly wrong in an orgy of explicit excess.
The project of the play marks an extraordinary collaboration between Stephens, the German director Sebastian Nübling (“No single German artist more fascinates me,” says Stephens) and the Estonian designer Ene-Liis Semper, with actors from all three countries including Ferdy Roberts of Filter Theatre as the other policeman and Risto Kübar as a white-suited musical trickster summoning the sex games with the seductive, slow tempo beat of “La paloma.”
Following his perverse filleting of Jarry’s Ubu Roi at Hampstead it is hard not to conclude that Stephens, usually so brilliant at cloaking a sinister narrative in muscular, theatrical language, is careering off the rails at the moment.
This show – which will no doubt be acclaimed at the Wiener Festwochen next month; it’s that sort of festival fun – is deeply disturbing not only in what it says but especially in how it says it. For some, that would be recommendation enough. But you’d have to be debauched beyond redemption in order to conclude that you were actually enjoying the spectacle while it happened.