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Review Round-up: Three Kingdoms divides the critics

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Simon Stephens’ latest play Three Kingdoms opened last night at the Lyric Hammersmith. Two detectives hunt down the brutal beheading of a woman in Hammersmith in a journey which takes them to Germany and Estonia to expose the horrors of human trafficking.

The cast includes Nicholas Tennant, Ferdy Roberts and Risto Kübar. The designer is Estonian Ene-Liis Semper and it is directed by German Sebastian Nübling. Three Kingdoms at the Lyric until 19 May.

Michael Coveney

"Simon Stephens’ new play ... 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... You know you’re in trouble when everyone suddenly dons wolves’ heads, sex aids and bondage gear for a lads’ night out in Tallinn... 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."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

Three Kingdoms Photo credit: Ene Liis Semper
"Simon Stephens’s new play is a detective story but director Sebastian Nübling has turned it into an extraordinary hallucination. Performed here as part of the World Stages festival, it’s an unsettling piece that pulses with menace and demented humour yet slips at times into self-indulgence... Stephens is never one to shy away from incendiary material, yet the qualities of his writing are often masked by the polyglot production — its German and Estonian contents relayed via surtitles... Elements of Three Kingdoms feel visionary. There’s a stunning theatricality in Nübling’s interpretation, which largely dispenses with the idea of elucidating meaning, preferring instead to create a montage of nightmarish images (a woman clawing her way out a suitcase) and intriguing textures (as when a quartet of Estonian hard men pound the set wearing boxing gloves). It’s the kind of thing aficionados of non-naturalistic theatre will cross continents to devour. But the symbolism becomes overwrought. Strenuous attention is paid to the seemingly trivial. There’s an intense focus on meandering songs (including a thoroughly bizarre version of The Beatles’ "Rocky Raccoon"), as well as lugubrious sequences involving mops and a lot of business with strap-ons. The results are disorientating — sometimes in a good way, sometimes not..."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Were Harry Enfield to do a pastiche of go-ahead, pan-European, 'ground-breaking' drama, he might devise something along the lines of Three Kingdoms . This show is magnificently bad, laughably awful, a real honking turkey (if turkeys honk). Even more perfect, it has been made with the financial support not only of us taxpayers in England but also of that European Capital of Culture wheeze. To manage that at a time of western financial crisis elevates this to high art of the mickey-taking variety. And we complain that our politicians are out of touch! ... The first half, which lasts for 110 punishing minutes, features much sex stuff: Men and women wearing dangly rubber protuberances, lubricated by hand; a transvestite tart with long legs and stubble who keeps opening his crotch; a kinky woman in a deer’s head; a chap who has a long length of tubing shoved up his backside; more besides... Faeces is smeared on walls. The acting is energetic to and past the point of gammon. Later, five characters arrive in wolf masks. They growl. Is it all a metaphor for Eastern European sleaze? I thought it might be but then the message became confused. I fear it is just silliness. At our expense."

Andrzej Lukowski
Time Out

"David Lynch is name-checked by Simon Stephens in the programme notes to his new play ... and fans of Lynch’s surreal oeuvre will surely find that this hallucinatory collaboration ... will scratch an itch that’s been bothering them since Lynch last made a film six years ago. Three Kingdoms pings the bizarre-o-meter somewhere between Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire and is consequently somewhat hard to summarise or define... Its lengthy first half could almost be a fish-out-of-water buddy comedy. In Ignatius and Charlie, Stephens has created two funny, humble, very British characters, and Tennant and Roberts play them with tremendous commitment and comic chemistry... Rather than a gritty interrogation of the daily realities of the vice industry, Stephens and Nübling offer up a cautionary fable of globalism – the sex trade is presented clinically here as an inevitable result of capitalism: it exists simply because there is a market for it... Three Kingdoms is never entirely fathomable but it is tremendously compelling... It’s clearly not for everyone. But this is as stylish and unsettling a production as you’ll see in London this year, an all too rare synthesis of Brit wit and European boldness."

Michael Billington

"The plot is made harder to follow by Nübling's grossly self-advertising production, in which everything is overstated and overheated. No one exits through a door if they can possibly leap through a window. The walls of Ene-Liis Semper's set are pummelled and beaten as if they were a punchbag. Actors in mid-sentence suddenly bark and go brick-red with violence. It's as if the more manic moments in Fawlty Towers had been choreographed by Pina Bausch ... You can't question the energy or commitment of the actors. Nicolas Tennant and Ferdy Roberts (the assiduous British cops), Steven Scharf (their disobliging German equivalent), and Cigdem Teke and Mirtel Pohla (assorted victims and exponents of the sex trade) all impress. Risto Kübar, too, goes through astonishing physical contortions as an androgynous shape-shifter. But the venture makes me question the very concept of a European co-production in which, as cinema has often shown, you end up with something that displays geographical diversity but has no specific identity."

Dominic Maxwell
The Times

"Stephens says that his twin inspirations were Raymond Chandler and David Lynch. But Nübling’s busy bizarreness ensures that Lynch has the whip hand from the off. Now, sure, Nübling has an exciting way with a theatrical space. The cast, anchored by the excellent Tennant, are adaptable and energetic. There are some good gags, too, and the multiple, surtitled languages are handled adroitly. But there is no base camp of reality. It all feels like a game. A stylish game, often — several of the effects are striking — but a long one at three hours ... If you’re going to harness the spirit of David Lynch, it’s oddly over-literal to use a song so associated with his work (Wicked Game by Chris Isaak). What’s more, since the set pieces come to rule, the visceral misogyny in the vice scenes leaves a nasty taste. It just looks like another effect rather than something being dealt with or commented on. It feels gratuitous. Stephens is a fascinating writer. But Nubling’s production is an adventurous misfire that gives us too much Oz, not enough Kansas."


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