Avoiding cheap thrills is a highly responsible tactic to employ with the issues arising from the sordid subject of cross-European sex-trafficking. Yet Simon Stephens’ “Three Kingdoms” is billed as a thriller. Thanks to Sebastian Nublung’s aggressive, strenuously high-minded production, it is nothing of the sort. What becomes painfully clear during three hours of intensely committed but deafeningly unsubtle physical performance is that anomie is the enemy of drama.
A detective story with notably little detection — plot discoveries are simply handed over in interview scenes — the play opens in London with an interrogation led by Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicolas Tennant) and Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts) in an absurdist version of Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.”
They’re trying to find the murderer of a woman whose sawed-off head has washed up in the Thames, her gruesome death having been captured on a mobile phone. We’re allowed to sense the horror courtesy of her screams, which we hear via the phone recording, but things become more graphic from here on in.
This being a threeway international co-production between the Munich Kammerspiele and Estonian theater company Theater NO99, the interrogation of hapless stooge Tommy (Rupert Simonian) offers up information which takes the policemen to Germany, where they encounter officer Steffan Dressner (dynamic and intense Steven Scharf).
Dressner’s love of the English leads him to act out a melodramatic version of the Beatles song “Rocky Racoon” — don’t ask — but doesn’t extend to learning the language, so scenes with him employ surtitles as our policemen are dragged further into the quagmire of prostitution and porn. And the deeper they go, the louder questions are asked about money, power and, yes, our own collective guilt.
Unfortunately, all of this is wholly predictable with barely a single element in the painfully slack narrative coming as a surprise. Indeed, the unmasking of the villain is handled in such a way as to make us feel impossibly provincial for looking for narrative closure.
Instead we are presented with wearyingly overstated imagery in which the audience is far, far ahead of the activity. Lines aren’t spoken when they can be whispered or yelled. A moment of frustration becomes a cadenza of bodies slamming against the wall. Songs are intoned, very slowly, for no reason. And although illustrating the crass boredom of the daily grind of the sex industry with actors tonelessly going about the business naked is fine, the scene, like most others, goes on interminably long after the point has been made.
Stephens is one of the U.K.’s most thoughtful and enquiring of dramatists, but his fascination with the directorial process has, on this occasion, blinded him. For all its immense physical audacity, this self-indulgent production displays a huge amount but expresses almost nothing. Sex-trafficking is degrading, disgusting and controlled by the greedy and powerful. Who knew?