“Who wants to be American?” detective Charlie says in a dismissive drawl, firmly putting aside any expectations that this multi-paced detective thriller from Simon Stephens and German auteur director Sebastian Nübling might be taking its cues from across the Atlantic. Not even Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, nor the heavy Lynchian fog that descends around this outlandish Empire (the spooky detective Dressler may eat cherry muesli like Dale Cooper, but is no cutesy home-spun oddity) can persuade us we’re on familiar territory. And when it’s David Lynch nods that are providing the stable references, you can be certain an astonishingly strange game is afoot.
This collaboration between Munich Kammerspiele and Teater No99 of Tallinn begins somewhere in London, in the foggy region of the Shadow Line. Two detectives Ignatius and Charlie (Nick Tennant and Ferdy Roberts), buddy cops with a Sweeney swagger and a Pinteresque poise, are pursuing the shadowy head of sex-trafficking gang “The White Bird” across the continent. Along the journey there is a ruthless hallucinatory take on the Englishman abroad; the smell of rubber and gloom in a brothel; a shining missive from the mind of the free marketeer whose moral abstractions deny the material relations of the women he trades; a step beyond globalisation; and an implicit condemnation of the Bullingdon gangs that rule the world. All of this couched in the most extraordinary visual language and oneiric retinal connivances this side of an acid trip in a Cologne forest.
Yes this is a detective thriller; albeit one that detours at length. Simon Stephens brings the same attention to procedural detail as he did to his last outing on these shores, The Trial of Ubu – bravura detail in fact, deployed in sharply-tuned impressionist bursts. Amongst this the tired-but-required conventions of the detective genre are treated like wide-open interstices for astonishingly stylised gestures. Sometimes meta-textual, as when the detectives need to get a interviewee back on side, “this is an apology” they state, half-turned to the audience (direct address is used to seamlessly unsettling effect). Or “it’s a gesture of friendship” Charlie declares, laying cake at the feet of a witness. At other times conventions balloon like fluorescent condoms or gasp-inducing dirigibles, massive gestures of physical grace and power. The moment when fear of reprisal causes witnesses to clam-shut, a swathe of muscular threatening policemen lay down at once, gracefully, childlike.
You could have had some home counties detectives knocking on rectory doors. Instead you got the fractured sublime. “It is a little dislocated” says Ignatius, with intimations of that economy of linguistic space that Stephens bought to Wastwater. And indeed, there were never going to be good guys and bad guys; and the way that the menacing callousness of the police transmutes into the same violence as the criminals is deftly handled. The Wire has it “all in the game”, and this is a game that favours deep echoing resonances and psychotic edges over sociological contours. The opposing camps are wrapped into a visceral game of free-chess, like free jazz with high stakes. And of course, in the end it is hard to say who won and who lost – that is to say little has changed, it is, quite perfectly, interminable.
Estonian artist Enne-Lis Semper codes-in an aesthetic of hard silhouettes and the granular sheen of cheap suits. With echoing backstage spaces, and holes in the wall which threaten to cave with the volume of athletic bodies that tumble through them unbidden – the telling detail of the set is perhaps a small piece of Georgian panelling toward the rear. As the characters pummel the walls with boxing gloves it’s as if they are literally assaulting the domestic comfort of British theatre, just as Lars Wittershagen’s throbbing sub-bass, tuned to sub-station frequencies, shakes the foundations.
A man stands confessing as a picture of a mulitated women is pinned facedown to his forehead; an apple ruthlessly peeled with some near knuckle knifework; the pornography of the corpse that is the television drama’s stock-in-trade, here re-animated. And with Stephens’ and Nübling’s imagery throughout there this sense of queasy reanimation: each image burns with the energy of a pyre of muscle fibres, for all its striking life hanging overhead is a deathly pall. As if something vital has been arrested, in the latex and grey turgid thrill of the commodity. When in the densely populated denouement one dark figure sprays pesticide and a taut female torso gyrates, there is not so much the sense that the young flesh of women is being poisoned by pornography, but the fatalistic sense that necrosis is part of this embodied life.
If the forensics are dermal, then the misogyny is frankly vaginal. A ferocious onslaught of swearing from the gang boss takes creative swearing to new incandescent lows (“soft-hearted monkey twats”), a blitzkrieg so numbing that the routine references to women as “stupid cunts” becomes swiftly normalised. At once it is possible to laugh in defence, (which is teasingly encouraged, with farce astonishingly stitched into the fabric of violence, replete with a Benny Hill reference) – it is also possible to moan. The monotonal musicalised grunts that emanate from offstage in the brothel, like some murderously unfeeling Italo disco, stand in stark contrast to the evasiveness with which the production elicits desire – through skilful and brute masculinity, the supremely genderbent body of Risto Kübar, the squatting stroking of a fifteen inch flesh coloured dildo dripping with water. Purity does not survive this onslaught of rubber and knuckles for a second: the fragile peony picked by Ignatius’ foreign wife ends up plucked from a gusset in a tawdry Euro-sex pantomime – a projection of an industrial stag night that turns Europe into a blasted heath.
It feels almost as if Stephens and Nübling have assimilated the baseline misogyny of the detective genre, and eschewing the business of presenting challenges, plumped for amped-up accelerationist games. It’s dangerous ground, as if they are creating the gender-stratified world afresh along the very same given lines. As the work plunders accepted sexual logics, gratifying itself, it is thunderous in its ability to make us complicit with the worst. It is notable however that the production manages to conjure a pervasive sense of objectified womanhood without actually presenting women as sexualised objects. Bar one Russ Meyer exploitation figure in a jade green dress – the femme fatale turns out to be a deer; the stripper washes herself matter-of-factly; the cleaner washes the floor. Perhaps it is too easy to have the women characters fall silent, and the libidinous investment in vileness is marked, yet the point is firm – it’s this hidden economy, silence in the murky mechanisms of globalisation, that remains such.
The most remarkable arc is that of Ignatius, skilfully rendered by Nick Tennant. His punchy frame begins life as a Goldberg variation interrogating his Stanley, playing stylised games of tennis with his suspect. But it’s not long before his serve disintegrates, and he becomes the cipher for an Englishman abroad: wasted, traumatised, wrestling and consuming. Soaked and barrel-chested like Oliver Reed on a stag night, he staggers to regain control of the case, as Nübling throws all of his Eastern Promises at him at once. In a moment more subtle, more queered and to my mind more extraordinary than the finale of Jerusalem, Ignatius, after swallowing a bottle of vodka, tries to stand proud and falteringly claim the colonial strength of the British Lion. “A hacksaw” he proclaims as the facts slip away, momentarily reclaiming them with a Shakespearean grandeur, an authority based on shrinking empiricism and disappearing ghosts of empire. Until he is finally pursued to his knees, with the words of PJ Harvey’s Last Living English Rose chanting around him he bursts “I just want to go home.”
This is not an outright assault on Englishness. Charlie speaks fluent German, the German detective Dressler (played by the diacritically and physically superlative Steven Scharf) no English, and it is ultimately the insularity of the monoglot, the assuming traveller, that Stephens condemns to intercultural hell. And this is redolent of the way this daring piece of European theatre co-opts its conservative critics from the outset, and with such savage joy. ‘You really do think Europe is a tawdry nightmare don’t you? Well, on one level – the level that you can understand – that is what you’re going to get.’ The queasy reaction from certain critics already suggests that the London stage is on the cusp of readiness for this. One of the best pieces of theatre, anywhere, you are likely to see this year.