Features Published 21 May 2012

Hardcore Critical Girl-on-Girl Action

Three Kingdoms, written by Simon Stephens and directed by Sebastian Nübling, has become something of a cause célèbre following its brief run at Lyric Hammersmith. Spawning a Guardian blog subtitled “the future of theatre?”, and causing Lyn Gardner to suggest in that same paper that "it felt like something has shifted" in the landscape of criticism, 3K split the critics and generated widespread discussion. Recently emerging was a question mark over the way the piece deals with its women characters. Here Exeunt editors gather round a virtual table to discuss the gender politics of 3K.
Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney: “A dark new thriller exploring human trafficking and the vice trade across three countries.” There are many reasons why that sentence – the tagline used to market Three Kingdoms is inadequate, but it’s the use of the word ‘explore’ that is most glaring. The production does many things – it excites, it provokes, it dazzles, it fatigues – but it doesn’t really ‘explore human trafficking and the vice trade’, it depicts it from certain perspectives. And in a play where language – and the barriers and connections it creates between people – is used to such strong effect, the women for the most part are noticeably voiceless.

Well, not quite. Though we never witness the killing of Vera Petrova, the trafficked sex-worker whose murder provides the play’s narrative catalyst, though we never glimpse her body, we do hear her final screams, her tortured howls as her head is placed in a vice and sawn off. Sawn rather than sliced. It takes, we are told, several attempts for this to occur. We also hear the groans of intercourse as she participates in a pornographic film. We are spared the sight of her body – wrists lacerated, nails shredded, bound and blue from exposure, like Laura Palmer in her plastic shroud, like Nanna Birk Larsen dredged from the lake, like the female corpses that litter every other episode of Law and Order, and CSI. We instead watch the male characters respond to this sight. Our gaze is directed at them gazing. (Interestingly there is more male nudity on stage than female and the one ‘corpse’ we do see is male).

Stephens and Nübling map this landscape, but they don’t explore it in the sense of charting new ground, of flag-planting, instead they unpick all too familiar images, they journey into shadowed spaces, recesses, the places we’d rather not look. And, yes, for me, there are times when the production seems problematically close to revelling. Close to being the operative term. As the ground seems to tilt beneath the lead character’s feet, as doors open in the walls and people spring through windows, the tropes with which the piece plays become increasingly stretched and distorted. Vera’s (incredibly unsettling, upsetting) howling becomes part of a greater roar, part of the piece’s pummeling aesthetic. It’s meant to be unsettling. It’s meant to appall. It’s meant to infect. It would be more worrying if it didn’t have this effect. But even though the sense of queasiness the piece causes is intentional, arguably necessary, it catches you in the stomach all the same.

Ella Parry-Davies: The word ‘vice’ in the tagline alludes, then, to the grip of the machinery that holds Petrova in place whilst her killer masterbates into her hair. Vice keeps her paralysed and powerless, vice is the force of the man who murders her. Vice is also the name of the trade – the economy of exploitation and gratification that churns out cases like this one. So is vice the killer here? Is the domination and greed empowered by global capitalism, the financial capital to traffick not just drugs but women from poorer countries to richer ones making a grander trope of prostitution? As the Estonian detective states, one day London women will be trafficked into Brazil and China.

Does this reading dodge the notion of blame? Perhaps, since the men in Three Kingdoms – including Petrova’s killer – aren’t hugely antipathetic. Or rather, our moral compass becomes so spun out, and like Stone we become so disorientated by the excesses and hyperrealism of the performance that questions of blame and judgement are confused. For me, it was consistently the body – male or female – that was at stake. Although performers seemed to vanish out of the windows, and bodies were sometimes hidden by masks, Pitsu, with her Mad Men hairdo and vintage dress, cramming a slice of cucumber into her mouth whilst her captors don’t see, was one of the most memorable images of the play. The placement of the slices on the tray, and the squelching stamp that crushed them into the floor. Food and shit – women do it too.

Daniel B. Yates: So I’m the nominal man here, but I’m wearing pink knickers and a strap-on – if that helps at all, it certainly gets me in the mood, it might even help me type.  

I digress. Tash, I’ll jump off the word ‘exploring’. To me that’s always been an inadequate term for describing any theatre, and as you point out, here it’s more inadequate than that. The map becomes the territory becomes the bodies becomes the breath  – becomes the dark, dark, dark energies of what we might simplify to call “patriarchal capitalism”.

Trace that energy system, so ruthlessly regulated by Nübling and the actors, through its darkest veins – through the disownership of the sex-worker by her disgusted mortician father (this reminds me of the feminism of London Road, the same abandonment predicated on sexist ‘morals’) to the woman-hating language of the wealthy scion fascist Aleksandr Richter, his demonic possession meeting the momentary disorientating roaring evil of Dresner. How that energy turns up callous and lazy in the pornographer Kohler, and begins to take on more organised form in the expensive shoes of Richter, the suits of the gang members as they pose GQ centrespread, Bullingdon style.

It’s a brilliant, fluid interpretation of masculinist symbology, gesture, instantiated with this rancid glistening breath.  There’s a line in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men which goes “to function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.” And I think the play asks at its originating point: how does this kind of evil, which is so effective, how does it breathe?

And in this way 3K is quite dazzling at teasing-out the correspondences between the dark shadows in which it lives and what we recognise more readily: heternormativity, malestream values, rape-culture. Dobash and Dobash in their pioneering study of domestic violence put it this way; these men “are actually living up to cultural prescriptions that are cherished in Western society – aggressiveness, male dominance and female subordination.” And this is precisely pushing psychic and bodily energy through very stark gender binaries, just as it induces a complicated relationship between us and these charged jouissance-laden images of masculinity.

But of course one gender binary does not exist without the other.  And you cannot read the silence of the aproned woman stonily washing the floor without looking at Dresner – ridiculous, charismatic and captivating as he sings Rocky Raccoon sliding across the stage.  Very deliberately, the audience’s attention that Nübling and the actors parse with such focus and conviction, is in this scene divided. Who do we look at and why?  What are the processes by which we can relate to this woman (and the men, that push brooms wearing the same apron, staring out at the audience blankly – because 3K is sophisticated in recognising intersections of gender, class, and ethnicity stratifications) how do we relate to them as infrastructure? As routinised objects in the penumbra. How is charismatic masculine energy implicated in this? How, in the moment, is this “double exploitation” by patriarchy and capital allowed to exist?  This isn’t even to mention the way the way the surtitles fall dark when she complains.

Pitsu another silent character, is largely stilled, mirroring the inward energy of the cleaners, employed and disciplined by the gang.  She is assault when she dares to laugh, to become part of the charismatic joke, after the men have played out their anger on one other at economic humiliation (“you think I look like I can’t afford a Vapiano pizza?”). This readily recalls 1st Wave feminist theses of the domestic “safety valve”, whereby men take out the frustration of capitalism through violence against women.

Because this isn’t really a play about trafficked women. It’s a play about commodity fetishism, alterity, pornography and globalised national culture and all the other things it is, and isn’t quite, about. It’s also a noir thriller and can’t be divorced from those constraints. As Laurie Penny writes about Steig Larsson’s stuff: “it’s rather hard to stop the heart racing when rapes and murders are taking place … part of the purpose of thrillers, after all, is to thrill.” And 3K thrills very stickily, while remaining much more problematising than any of the Larsson products.

I mention national culture here because I’m reminded of a phrase from feminist writer Nira Yuval-Davis – that of the “symbolic border guard”. She posits that just as women are denied the same kind of citizenship as men, they become reified symbols of a national collectivity. So you get Boudicca at the Proms; Delacroix’s Liberty painting; or, y’know, Geri Halliwell at the UN.  As a consequence men get teary-eyed about the motherland, and mother heroes get statues, and girls are told to think they can meet Mandela if they wear the right knickers: and the material reality of how biology affects your participation in national culture is veiled.

So if we’re talking about women as symbol (and let’s not pretend there are no meaty roles for women in 2012, that sort of argument makes us feminists look empirically bonkers), perhaps 3K’s abject women can be read in the above light – as an inverse reification. A death. A matter-of-factness. They are avatars of globalisation, transcending any project of nationhood because they have become the pure commodity. In this, hyperreal, way they are materially realised – overdetermined and totally without agency. As people, but non-people, they are stateless, sans-papier, without citizenship on any level; while the men cross borders with ease the women are just invisibly traded.

Reduced to symbol it is one that signifies absence: signifying no signification. If one side of the 50p coin reads ‘rule britannia’, the other is frighteningly blank as it is deposited offshore.

And because national culture is woven into this play, that sort of symbol – a sort of universal particular silence – is certainly more pressing and eloquent on biological citizenship than, something like say, Lady Liberty with her come-hither eyes and fuck-off torch.

Diana Damian: Tasha, I disagree that these elements of the piece are meant to appall, to be confrontational, or create shock. The play mixes symbolism with atmosphere, law with lawlessness, and removes the rigidity of any moral position, which think has the opposite effect- it’s always flirting with humour, it creates such precise atmospheres. On the surface, and in effect, Three Kingdoms works within the conventions- dramatic and narrative- of the noir genre, anchoring its audience to one character – Ignatius – and his downfall, in a rather transparent way, as Daniel observes. It toys with stylization and aesthetic politics in a manner that distances it from its operative mechanic- it’s not a play about sex trafficking, but a portrait of contemporary Europe which uses that as its score.

In that way, the production engages with an aesthetic that condenses its atmospheres into powerful, emotional ripples. There’s an ambiguous dramatic tone that doesn’t code in a theatrical law, but instead you find yourself laughing with people you should despise- it’s an overt displacement of binaries, and one which tempts you with the false security of moral high ground- which the piece so cunningly satirises.

The production grounds its gender politics in the code of theatrical noir. It plays with that sense of lawlessness which escalates, but I think it makes it very clear that this is not a play about sex trafficking. It uses and abuses that score in a fictionalized manner to draw an acute and sharp portrait of contemporary Europe. Just because there is sex portrayed onstage, and just because misogynists are present, doesn’t mean the play itself is promoting pornography, or misogyny for that matter. Just look at the way in which sex is portrayed, in which some symbols are so overt they become funny, and behind that lies critique.

I think it’s all too easy to impose a reading of the production with cues that we associate in some ways with the representational. Three Kingdoms is much smarter than that- it attempts to introduce an aesthetic without hierarchies, in which some actions and encounters are purely there to construct an atmosphere. It leaves so much room to weave such arguments because it doesn’t set a language that remains the same, but also because it functions within the conventions of the noir so eloquently.  The compère in the slick white suit, Sonny, who begins the play is a perfect example; let’s look at the final scene, in which Sonny challenges Ignatius to create a paper swan; he scrunches it up, and what does Ignatius do? Tentatively follows. Previous to that, PJ Harvey helps glide that scale, the actors performing in such a knowing and amused manner, dancing onstage in a ritualized politic.This is contemporary Europe- these are the three kingdoms, and in that mythology, what happens when you head East? A noir would have driven south to Mexico- Ignatius heads East, and what he finds is not what he expected.

There have been some problematic assumptions on women’s lack of agency in the show, which somehow is assumed to happen in the show’s making as well. Given that this is not an entirely male dominated creative team in the first place, this assumption reveals the flaw of argument. I don’t think the production owes anything to anyone on that front. Three Kingdoms portrays violence, pornography, misogyny. Why is there such a fear that it might be those things?

A scene occurs where a woman is mistreated; several- but there’s also belting PJ Harvey, a transvestite, head masks, people eating grass out of cups, and a parade of men in their patriarchies, one sleazier than the other- as Daniel points out, the late capitalist monsters, but monsters that we somehow befriend. And as Ella points out, in this landscape there is no moral compass. This makes the stage a space for re-enactment not replication; the play feels real, it brings the context to trial. I love the way Estonia becomes a synthesis of this- in the beginning, it’s an exotic place where people slap each other with dried flowers; in the end, a man in a smart grey suit walks onstage as Ignatius sits covered in sweat on the floor.

I think Three Kingdoms is packed with such nuances – and they reside both in its dramaturgy and its refined theatrical vocabulary; it uses atmosphere, character, conventions, symbolism, and thrilling humour to paint its portrait; its stage is a postmodern series of frames that shift from specific place to dreamscape, and its aesthetic borrows from the trashy to the cinematic- be it glittery costumes or that iconic grey suit. The sound dominates the architecture of the piece, fleshing out particular encounters, extending the metaphors. In its genre constraints, Three Kingdoms knows how to play, and challenges us to play with it; I like theatre that’s dangerous in that respect.

Natasha Tripney: OK, point taken, I do understand that the representation of misogynist acts and behaviour is not the same thing as misogyny, I think that’s a given. But I do wonder if it’s ever possible to completely escape a representational reading of a piece? I appreciate much of what you’re saying about the piece’s aesthetic vocabulary, its playfulness, its references, but audiences have a habit of bringing their own moral compasses into the room.  I struggle to disconnect my emotional response to the piece from my intellectual one, nor am I sure that I want to.

That aside, I’m interested in this question, asked by Catriona Soutar on Twitter: “why can’t a female body be a neutral body? Why did the central body have to be male?” I’m not sure I know the answer to this. Are there times and places when the female body is neutral in our society, or is it always politically weighted in some way? Given the response to the piece as it stands, what would the response have been like if Nübling had included more female nudity? Or if there had been more women on stage, voiceless or otherwise? I’m genuinely interested to consider whether this would have had any effect on either my and the broader critical response to it.

Ella Parry-Davies: Tash, I think the idea of neutrality is an interesting one and intersects with Daniel’s argument about the 3K women as national blanks, sans papiers, which I find incredibly helpful as a reading. If gender is to whatever extent performative, nation states and economic superstructures are crucially implicated in that construction. As Daniel notes, and I’m sure someone like Marina Warner (Monuments and Maidens) might argue, women’s bodies are imbued with values which uphold their oppression. Is this too entrenched in European culture to achieve neutrality for women’s bodies on stage? Perhaps. But what 3K did do was play with some of the binary gender ‘ontologies’ that make these fantasies about women possible. Sonny was an important part of this. (still, how would it have been different if the body brought on by the forensics and covered with a handkerchief was not his but a woman’s?) The multiroling was also significant, in a transparently Brechtian way. That bilingual female actors were able to cross borders in the guise of their characters in ways the men didn’t gave them a sort of power. Whilst the women they represent may be disenfranchised and sans papiers, the female actors were the flipside of this coin again – self-defining national shapeshifters.

Daniel B. Yates: On female nudity, I think the nakedness of the guys works in one sense precisely to give the air of raw flesh without inviting the scopophilic male gaze into the house, and this flesh works in interesting ways with the prosthetic flesh.  The one instance of women’s nakedness is dressing for work cleaning in a brothel, which chimes with the scantily clad Kristina Suvi washing herself, without, it should be said, submitting to the gaze. The latter Enne-Liis Semper makes difficult by adding a scar on Suvi’s cheek, which is characteristic of the way that at no point are we allowed to step out of the regime that marks and produces these bodies and subjugates these women. The gender-ambiguity of Eleanor allows us to observe her sexuality – teasing and fucking the police, as meat for the orgy scene where the flowers are picked by mostly male mouths from her body – we can see gender as a construction, while the piece perhaps looks to head-off accusations of gratuity and misogyny.  

On this last image, I think nature and culture are interesting here, and potentially much more troubling that all the carefully contextualised violence which has stirred such mis-reading.  Eleanor is the fecund soil, made travesty, and the men sate themselves on her flowers: The flower picked by Caroline, she eats silently. Ignatius used to love nature, now he wants to shoot seagulls. This sits under the hunter/prey symbolism of the deer and wolf-heads, and there’s something quite complicated happening here, and it’s nothing to do with a simple essentializing of womanhood-in-nature.  And what about when Pitsu smiles at us?  Those are He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss-like levels of provocation.  

But all of what I’ve written here is inadequate.  Unlike, say, Diana here, I simply don’t have the language or understanding to properly describe this play. A text this rich deserves thesis after thesis, and for me it’s not the direction of the critiques that have occurred with regard to the play’s gender politics that has rankled, but their refusal to deal with its complexity, to apply any feminist critique worth the name, and use a simplified emotional response that looks to dampen analysis. All this has painted a dazzlingly complex and in many ways progressive play into a reactionary corner. And that is a marked disservice.

Diana Damian: I’m not sure it’s about disconnecting modes of response, and in that way, I don’t think Three Kingdoms re-codes ways of engagement. I do however believe that symbolism is not the only form of producing meaning onstage, and because of the cultural context in which the production is presented, it seems to dominate unfailingly. I think there is a danger of mythologizing the discourses inherent in the production; but it holds a particular discourse that borrows from the language of postmodern theatre, but conflates that with the structural and narrative demands of a particular genre. Meaning is not only produced by the aesthetic – and the consistency and coherence of Three Kingdoms is provided by its lack of hierarchy – sound, language, physicality, lighting, they all construct a particular poiesis.  

Tasha, you mention the neutral body- but what body is neutral? How does gender displace that neutrality, and why are we isolating an aesthetic referent from its context? The story is not an aspect that should be separated from the visual narrative, or from its physical counterpart. Otherwise we risk to promote – which the play so actively dismisses – the idea that there can be no piece of theatre about Eastern Europe that isn’t about sex trafficking… I don’t think the body should be read in the context of a discourse and aesthetic of sex or violence; I think it’s coded into a visual and aesthetic network of  nationalism, of characterization and of satire. The women are mostly silent because this serves the story, not because there is a secret, underlying code that promotes or reinforces that dominant patriarchy. Just look at the image of Helle wearing a deer mask, a strapped on penis under her dress – that’s not a gendered body in the same way that Sonny can shift from transvestite to compair – a visually nomadic figure. Ella mentions Brecht, and he’s an interesting reference here, because the gestus definitely comes into play and allows for a way of accessing a particular reading of the female aesthetic discourse in the piece – as Elin Diamond suggests, it’s not a representation, it’s a model of engagement.

I think it’s crucial to position Three Kingdoms not only in its flirtation with a genre – the noir, that holds a particular set of restrictions both formal and dramaturgical, but also as a sharp critique and portrait of Europe first and foremost – the title and structure very much reinforce that. I don’t usually get this card out – but as an Eastern European myself, the portrayal of this micro-patriarchy that dominates a political and social landscape in such a way isn’t only accurate, but a potent critique. To introduce a problematic Western morality to  a production that systematically attempts to call that into question – just  look at Ignatius’s own downfall – feels like imposing a reading to alleviate a certain difference which Three Kingdoms picks up on so sharply.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.



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