by Simon Stephens
14th May 2012
Simon Stephens’ new play “Three Kingdoms” at the Lyric Hammersmith did not fail to impress, alienate, render thunderstruck, irritate or be downright obscene. A striking work of imagination and with moments of wonderful writing, the 3 hour long epic exploring “human trafficking and the vice trade” is stuffed full of imagery that occasionally strikes true but more often than not feels self-indulgent, and veers on the pornographic.
Nicholas Tennant and Ferdy Roberts open the play with a pacy and fiery dialogue, creating these beautifully raw characters that were truly astonishing – think “The Killing” meets “New Tricks” meets Pinter – and that set up an incredible level from which the rest of the play dropped off. Following the investigation of these two detectives after they discover the decapitated head of a woman in the Thames, the play stretches from Hammersmith to Germany to Estonia, taking in an array of bizarre characters from the sordid underworld of all three nations. We visit a mortuary, a pimp’s bedsit, the set for an adult film, an Estonia bar/spa/self-flagellation-location, and with each transition we lose a little of our comprehension, a little of the play’s opening power.
It is difficult to describe the overriding experience that director Sebastian Nubling creates, other than in insufficient adjectives like “trippy”, “raw” and “powerful”, which fail to encapsulate the complete confusion of emotion that is generated. Right up until the last few scenes where a little trickle of meaning oozes out, particularly in the German detective’s final speech, the production works by image, sound and confusion: three aspects that should be attracting larger audiences than the theatre was holding on this occasion. It’s worth going to see it just for the opening scenes, and Tennant’s continually compelling performance, but don’t go if you’re precious about The Beatles, coffee or baseball bats: they will never be the same again.