Three Kingdoms

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Three Kingdoms
© Ene Liis Semper

David Lynch is namechecked by Simon Stephens in the programme notes to his new play 'Three Kingdoms', and fans of Lynch's surreal oeuvre will surely find that this hallucinatory collaboration between the Lyric, Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia's Teater No99 (presented as part of World Stages London) 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, but let's give it a shot.

At its most basic level, Stephens has written a drama about two British detectives – grouchy Ignatius Stone (Nicolas Tennant) and nerdy Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts) – who embark upon an increasingly disorientating journey across Europe in order to apprehend the killer of a sex-trafficked Estonian prostitute.

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, their bickering, everyman humanity offering an accessible counterpoint to the archly weird European environment conjured by visionary German director Sebastian Nübling.

The iconography of trafficking is present in 'Three Kingdoms', but in distant, chillingly abstracted fashion, as women emerge from suitcases or don deer's heads while wolf-masked pimps look on (immense credit to Ene-Liis Semper, whose costume designs are stunning). 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.

Hammered home by a pithy speech in the second half, this is one of the clearer arguments in a sprawling play. There are multiple themes: insecure male sexuality; the disorientation of travel in a world denatured by globalisation. But this show is certainly not one for fans of a simple message or linear plotting.

'Three Kingdoms' is never entirely fathomable but it is tremendously compelling. It is indulgent in its way – it could run at less than the current three hours without losing its impact. Yet Stephens's baggy, blackly hilarious script is marked by a great joy in writing, a love of his characters and relish for exploring this twilit European underworld he has created. It is tremendously well acted by the international ensemble, and Nübling imbues it with a beautifully watchable rhythm that only flags a little in the second half.

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.

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Paul

The "first half" was one hour fifty minutes long and more than enough for my partner and I despite our love for theatre. It's a pretentious attempt to blend Cabaret with Silent Witness but actually content-free. More "performance" than play but essentially failing at both. Given the subject matter the complete failure to engender any empathy with any character was, I suppose, an achievement of sorts.