Three Kingdoms: Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling

Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith

Not considered suitable for under 16s or British mainstream theatre critics

I found Three Kingdoms a bit of a joyride. Sit forward on your seat in the first half, enjoy the laughs, then have a drink in the interval and just go with the second half. I’m not sure if I’ll manage to add to what is already out there in blogs, so I’m mostly going to quote them here in case it makes one more person see the work. There are only three nights left. Get a ticket!

On the work:

On the way this work makes you feel, the reactions it provokes, I identify with this: Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies:

About halfway through the first half of Three Kingdoms on Tuesday night, probably an hour and fifteen minutes in or so, I scrawled the following in my notebook:

“Stop everything. Storm the National Theatre. Tear down the Donmar Warehouse. Torch the Royal Court. Redact the entire history of the RSC and fetch me Trevor Nunn’s head on a plate.”

In retrospect, this was probably an over-reaction born in the heat of the moment. Not because it over-praises, but because it does the great work at those theatres a disservice. Let’s blame the adrenaline flooding my bloodstream. Let’s blame the breathlessness and the dizziness; the disbelief and the sheer fucking thrill. I was putty. I was windswept. I was in love. (Matt Trueman)

On the coming together of theatrical cultures. The collaboration between the writing and the direction, the way the staging adds meaning, depth, humour and detail to the writing:

Dan Rebellato, playwright, Spilled Ink:

First, the play was written for Sebastian Nübling. Simon Stephens has been developing a writing style that leaves space for the director. The published text is large, generous, sprawling; it asks to be intervened in, to be selected from, to be cut. It reminds me of Howard Barker’s The Ecstatic Bible, a play that would probably take 12 hours to perform and has never been performed in its entirety. But even in more conventional theatre, J B Priestley always deliberately overwrote his plays, on the understanding that a particular production would find its own path through the material, its own emphasis, its own interests and could therefore cut it accordingly. Hamlet is enormously long in its fullest textual variant and is almost always cut, without demur.

Second, and following from the previous thought, if Simon’s intention is to offer a text to be cut about, interpreted, selected from and collaborated with, Nübling has been doing to good old-fashioned British thing of respecting the playwright’s intentions.

Third, the production’s imagery is entirely drawn from the text….(Dan Rebellato)

I am extremely interested in this approach to writing that leaves room for collaboration, writing with space for the director. I think it might be the key to bringing theatre and playwriting into a new era.

On the problem of the representation of women….

Three Kingdoms

…I wonder if the reviewers, and viewers who dismiss the work on the grounds that it titillates and doesn’t question degradation of women  are actually trying to find a way of criticising the work that avoids mentioning what really made them uncomfortable – the orgy scene, the naked men…You can buy dildos, strap ons and lubrication on the high street (I think).  A 60yr old man can pick up a 20yr old girl in a London club. And that’s even before getting into the underground scene. But we can’t see it on a stage in our country? Are we so distanced from these things? Perhaps that’s one of the points. The girl trafficked in Estonia is the older British man’s young wife.

But interwoven with this criticism is the only reservation I have about the work –  the lack of strong female characters…. to make theatre richer, to add poetry, to add power, to play against the male voices, to talk back. The muting of the female voice inside the deer mask was perhaps louder than if she were to suddenly speak, perhaps…. Or perhaps, within this non-naturalistic, non-realistic world, there is room for the other voice. But I didn’t find any female nudity gratuitous or any of those scenes titillating, there was little actual showing of female abuse, it was under the surface, perhaps that’s what made it more disturbing.

Chris Goode comenting on this subject on Andrew Haydon’s blog:

I think you’re right that a major problem is that there are too few women in the company and their roles are feebly underdeveloped; the requirements of the production are anyway not easily distinguished from the requirements of the men in the play who (bountifully) hate women. So in the end I guess my problem is that I have nothing left to work with, in extending to Stephens and Nübling some benefit of the doubt, other than whatever degree of cultural proximity permits me to assume that they are not themselves amused and titillated by the emotional and physical abuse of women by men. There is a problem with such assumptions, which is that they are wrong about a lot of people. What ultimately I find ticklish, to say the least, is this: if Three Kingdoms had been made by out-and-out misogynists, in what ways would it look or feel any different? (Chris Goode)

You know, I’m not sure if I can formulate it yet, but I think the work would look and feel very different if it had been made by misogynists. There was something about the porno scenes that were just… playful, irreverent, just a little bit real too. A little like Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots.  But still, the main contribution to the work made by the women was their sparkly dresses doubling up as stage lights. All I can say is that as a woman I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable, the women on stage, while they had weak roles and little voice, they did have intelligent glints in their eyes, they did seem in control of their physicality.  In contrast, I felt very uncomfortable and angry at the way Simon McBurney had his actor playing Margarita running naked, vacant, drunk in emotional ecstasy within a sea of clothed men for an extended section of Complicite’s The Master and the Margarita. That was far more disturbing, and yet Billington described it like this: ‘Sinéad Matthews’s Margarita, bravely naked for much of the second half, also conveys the inherent goodness of the devoted muse’

To reduce this work to its story is to reduce this work – and too often that is what reviews do. Andrew Haydon on meaning and making sense:

When a play takes this sort of jump outside the realms of the possible, it suddenly seems to become much more difficult to talk about. “What does that mean?” suggests itself as a question. Or even simply “What just happened there?” Are we meant to reconstruct our ideas of what happened through this new development? Is this sudden transformation intended as A Big Metaphor that we’re meant to Get? It is disorienting in all these ways. Being willing to allow that disorientation to be a part of the whole experience of the play feels crucial.

I suspect, in part, this might be what other critics have objected to: the fact that, on one level, the play does stop “making sense” altogether – although I would argue that this precise moment actually generates a lot new *senses*. But it’s not immediately pin-downable. And if someone believed their job was to pin down and explain, then this sort of thing is inevitably going to get on their wick.

I think what is most impacting about the work is to do with form, theatrical languages, and ways of making theatre: The colliding and collaboration of three different theatre making cultures, the British naturalism, ‘text-based’ writing and meaty acting, the German approach to directing work, Sebastian Nubling’s direction that pushes Stephen’s writing, plays against it, riffs with it, adds layers to it, the detail and precision in the direction, the craft, the physicality of the Estonian actors, the irreverence towards nudity, sex, pornography. The detail in the delivery of text, the range of acting styles and actors was fantastic, the character Steffen Dresner towering above the others, and the use of different languages on stage, the play with translation, the pop culture references and the humour was exhilarating. It was such a rich experience, the kind of theatre experience that doesn’t require intellectualisation, that it is hard to remember or describe some of the most fantastic moments. But I remember at one point, out of this crazy physicality, out of the chaos, emerged poetry. Not in the sense of poetic visual imagery (there was lots of that too), but literally… spoken, meaningful poetry…words that suddenly got to the heart.

I went to the theatre most nights while I was in Berlin for a few months, and I lived in Amsterdam for a couple of years so I saw a lot there – most of it nowhere near this level of craft, direction and writing. But still, I haven’t seen enough work outside of this country to know whether writing, performance and direction this strong and entertaining has come together before. My sense is that while the elements within this work have been around in the theatre for years, because of its collision of different theatre making and writing cultures, the work truly is ground-breaking.

‘I’ve never thought of myself as avant-garde. If you run around a race-track and are a full circuit behind everyone else, then you are alone and appear to be first. Maybe that is what happened to me…’ Tatsumi Hijikata

It got me thinking about Butoh, a post-war Japanese avant-garde movement. – the character of the ‘Trickster’ particularly reminded me of images like these:

Michio Ito, Dancer, 1916
Tatsumi Hijikata (1950s)
Tatsumi Hijikata

Risto Kübar, who played the ‘Trickster’ is an astonishing actor  who can go from the performance of failure seen in performers from Forced Entertainment as he struggles to sing, embarrassed as he realises he is being watched…to a strange all knowing mystical Shakesperian fool,  travelling between worlds, with the physicality, flexibility, technique and detail of a supreme dancer, morphing into a cross dressing prostitute (with little dress and pull up white socks), evocative of butoh dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno… and finally, at the end of the evening, which, by the way, is not a second too long….he creates one of the most poetic moments I’ve ever seen.

The mainstream theatre critics have put audiences off seeing this work, that is a serious crime against theatre and they should all be hung. (out to dry, I mean, of course)

Product and Furniture designer Ana-Maria Pasescu Stewart has constructed a light source that isn’t so traditional.

6 thoughts on “Three Kingdoms: Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling

  1. Thanks for reading Andrew, I really enjoyed your article. You’re spot on about meaning – I think there is a strange kind of fear of work that cannot be summed up in a little story. Work that is not ‘clear’. I think it’s going to keep a lot of us busy for a while! Wish I could see it again, it was great to read Matt Trueman’s response after his second viewing, I look forward to reading more…

  2. Oh, there’ll be more. Most definitely… :-)

    Oddly, on second viewing, I found it a hell of a lot clearer. First time round it was almost too headrush-y, second time round I follwed it a lot more clearly. The big surprise, though, is just *how* linear the script itself is. Could literally be totally straight telly (albeit with a bit of a critique of capitalism). Astonishing.

  3. That doesn’t sound odd really…I think there are different ways of watching. As a critic I guess you know this more than me. When I watched, I wasn’t planning on blogging about it or anything and I really just went with it and didn’t interpret or try to make out a story (I’m not too bothered about ‘story’ in general anyway – although I like to find my own meanings and interpretations). On a 2nd viewing I guess that initial impact has gone so there’s more brain power left for interpretation. I’d have loved to watch it again particularly as I think the idea of doubling of characters/ blurred boundaries between characters and identities was really interesting and I’d like to pick up more of that. Shall read your blog now!

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