As I try to write about Three Kingdoms, I find myself wordless, which isn’t helpful, but the show that begins as a crime drama before descending into I don’t know what has my jaw dragging along the ground.
The international collaboration between the Lyric Hammersmith, Germany’s Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia’s Teater NO99 – the second show of the World Stages London festival – begins so casually; a police interrogation, a horrific crime and a cop partnership like any other with a dry, intelligent, playful wit. It is tense, intriguing, funny, but so far so straight-down-the-line, if you bypass the sung introduction. If you also ignore the unnerving deer headpiece sported by a second interviewee, everything remains pretty conventional until the coppers – Ferdy Roberts and Nicolas Tennant – leave the UK in search of a crime lord.
It’s here that you really begin to see the influence of German director Sebastian Nubling, who’s taken Simon Stephens’s witty, engaging text and added a sprinkling of hallucinogenic fairy dust, and Teater NO99, which contributes a twist of scenery-leaping vitality.
We travel through a porn den with more rubber appendages than a pencil topping factory, through a hotel meeting that may or may not be real, to an Estonia where Stephens’s world giggles as it waves goodbye to any semblance of reality to dance gleefully in a world of metaphor and subconscious wanderings.
I’m sure someone can tell me what actually happened to the poor girl whose detached noggin was discovered at the play’s opening, but I surely don’t know. I’m not even convinced she was real anymore.
It doesn’t particularly matter. Her plight might drive the piece to begin with, but is soon supplanted by the sense of fear and outsiderness felt by Tennant’s Ignacious Stone, a Brit through and through who fears for his relationship with a younger wife, becomes obsessed with the case and flounders like the proverbial H20-free aquatic animal in a foreign environment, staring blankly and feeling mocked with every twitch of a foreign tongue.
As much as anything, Three Kingdoms is a victory for atmosphere, for taking Stone’s intense lack of comfort and confusion and sharing it with an audience. By the show’s papery conclusion, he didn’t know what was happening and neither did I. Yet that didn’t really matter. The sense of bewilderment only melded with Ene-Liis Semper’s design and Lars Wittershagen’s rumbling base-heavy sound to create a bizarre, nightmarish, engaging, stomach-churning, engulfing, repellent, magnetic, unique theatrical experience.