1Simon Stephens’s play Three Kingdoms has been one of the most widely discussed theatre texts of the recent period. The controversy it has stirred is comparable to the equally formally experimental, carefully constructed and executed play The Author by Tim Crouch (2009). What the two plays have in common is a seemingly open and flexible form and a highly sensitive issue at the heart of their plots. In Crouch’s play this is the almost imperceptible boundary between art and life, the artist’s responsibility and their potential implication in propagating violence and abuse. In Stephens’s play, some of these questions persist. Here, too, we are dealing with the issue of how much responsibility the playwright carries when it comes to their position against major social issues. Specifically, we are confronted with the concern of how this responsibility might begin to be articulated in a contemporary play. This entails the dilemma of how the theatre might set out to explore crimes of violence and sexual exploitation in a way that in turn might genuinely stand to inform and influence our social views beyond our immediate critical response.
2Three Kingdoms is a play about abuse against vulnerable individuals who are marketed as though they were passive prey to the desires of others, whether for profit, for sexual consumption, or both. As I will discuss in this essay, in order to demonstrate the process of ruthless objectification and commodification, Stephens arrives at a model that purposefully deviates from the social-realist norm, combining expressionism and metaphor as it progresses. Far from depicting the exploited and marketed individuals that are the victims of sexual trade as decorporealised and disinvested, quite on the contrary, he amplifies the impact of their physicality by providing theatrical storytelling that is reliant on the body as much as on text. He also, as this essay will explore in detail, renders this physicality visible for spectators in a way that does not present it merely as human, or at least not in a straightforward or one-dimensional way. That is, Stephens returns the human to its primal form, that of a creature, indeed an animal. This depiction then goes on to act as an apt vehicle and metaphor for making statements as to the urges, instincts and aggression that specific social groups act on but also the victimisation that other social groups sustain.
3Stephens’s play, therefore, appeals to our spectatorial, ethical and social sensibilities, as well as to our capability for empathy and compassion in a very raw and immediate way. In a context where information is exchanged rapidly, processed and discarded, any potential of shock that it might create being limited to an ephemeral duration – a context facilitated by the advances of contemporary media – Stephens returns the facts and the problem to an unsaturated state. Investing in the human tendency to exercise more leniency and develop more empathy towards that which is seen as defenceless and vulnerable, Stephens presents the exploited individuals as noble creatures that have been hunted so as to please the carnivorous appetites of their transgressors for their desirable flesh, which instigates lustful appetite. Pointing to the realities of the ‘food chain’ in globalised societies and markets, the play also stages the victimiser – the hunter, the perpetrator – as an animal. By seeing the female at risk represented as a forest animal of prey and the men exercising criminal behaviour against her presented as wolves, the play makes the point of these women being perceived as ‘easy kill’, targeted for their bodies, all the more poignantly. The female with agency over her own body is thus portrayed as an endangered species in the realm of the predatory male (see also Baker, p. 80, for a discussion of how certain types of art serve to restore our attention to the endangered animal itself, an outcome that may be secondary in Stephen’s play, but which also emerges as an after-effect). The primal cycle of violence and the allusions to animal rights become a metaphor that facilitates the impactful staging of human rights. Taking the above into consideration, Stephens’s play can be conceptualised as a case study for what Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and Lourdes Orozco have recently described as “bring[ing] our attention to animals – themselves as well as the larger focus on what they can say about environmental, [and especially relevant in the example of this play] economic, social and political human issues” (Performing Animality, 2015: 2).
4Three Kingdoms, of course, was not a solitary effort by Stephens but the product of the fruitful, ongoing collaboration between the playwright and the German theatre director Sebastian Nübling, with whom he has worked repeatedly for the purposes of new commissions as well as revivals. The innovation that the play contributed to the contemporary staging of human rights must necessarily be treated as a dynamic process of co-creation by international theatre artists, especially considering that in its original production Three Kingdoms brought together performers from three different countries: Estonia, Germany and the UK. Specifically, the play opened in Tallinn’s Teater NO99 (Three Kingdoms 3) in the Autumn of 2011 and, shortly afterwards, travelled to the Munich Kammerspiele before eventually arriving at London’s Lyric Hammersmith – with which Stephens has also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration – in the Spring of 2012 (ibid.). The production continued touring extensively in the period that followed, thereby reaching more international spectators. The collaboration between artists that shared their creative and cultural spaces to deliver a piece of theatre that dealt with a shared problem for Europe (though certainly not exclusive to this region), from East to West, is also reflected in the formal make-up of the text. The play is divided into three wide-ranging parts unfolding in different locations (reflecting the Three Kingdoms in its very title): London, Hamburg and Tallinn. Following its geographical, physical and emotional Odyssey in the paths of sex trade in Europe the play comes full circle to conclude in London, where its Epilogue is located. In the course of the action we encounter a large international cast and become exposed to a broad array of characters. As a result, we also come to experience the manifold possibilities, shapes and embodiments of the human animal, which the play viscerally depicts, so that we might arrive at an understanding of what lies at its very core.
5It is important to note that there are no animals per se in Three Kingdoms, even though animality as a unifying thematic thread persists and there is a recurring visual allusion to it by means of attention-attracting props, as we see actors wearing animal heads in different stages of the performance. The story of the play is by now familiar: Three Kingdoms deals with incidents of severe violence, starting with the discovery of a hideous crime, when a woman’s severed head is found in a bag in the river Thames. The woman was a prostitute. The event instigates a long process of ongoing discovery for the two British policemen, Detective Inspector Charlie Lee and Detective Sergeant Ignatius Stone, who are assigned to the case, as they travel to Germany and Estonia in a dizzying journey towards establishing the facts of the crime. We hear all three languages spoken in the three respective parts of the play. Depending on where the play is staged surtitles accompany parts of the performance as needed to meet the specifications of the local (yet always international) audience.
6Discussing the process of working on Three Kingdoms, Stephens reveals that “many of the changes between the published and performed text resulted from the fusion of our imaginations” (Three Kingdoms vi). The element of the animal is significant in capturing the id-like energy of primal survival and extinction that Stephens’s play pursues. As Steve Baker argues, “While animals, […] are still very widely regarded and treated as being lower down some notional phylogenetic hierarchy than are humans, their value to the human imagination has seldom been in doubt” (73). Stephens notes that he was particularly pleased with how Ene-Liis Semper’s set design “seemed to understand the atomised, hallucinatory nature of sex and travel and money” (Three Kingdoms vi), characteristically describing his image of the play as “Europe on its knees, this atrocity exhibition of post-colonialism” (ibid.). The comment is justified: from the naturalistic images of the early moments as the police investigation begins, the play gradually moves to a visceral exposition of sexual excess, transgression and desensitisation when delving into the realities of sex trade without relying solely on language to reveal the extent of the issue but investing in a depiction that is as realist as it is surreal. That is, it is both grounded in graphic detail and at the same time too nightmarish to fathom, forcing the point that this may well constitute the reality of modern-day exploited sex workers all the more poignantly. In the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since the premiere production of Three Kingdoms the relevance of the play persists, consistently proven by grim statistics. In 2014 the number of humans exploited as slaves within Europe was estimated at over half a million (the closest number was given as 566.000), including, of course, victims of the international sex trade1.
7The play works quite intently on the symbolic level, making the case that reading the playtext is only half the story all the more convincingly. As a spectator who encountered Three Kingdoms firstly as a stage event and later as a playtext, I would propose that the differences between the two are noticeable, primarily in terms of the sprawling effect of the play and the haunting, but also disorientating atmosphere that the production achieved. The playtext, which is certainly – and rightly – ambitious and exploratory, ultimately strikes one as somewhat more concentrated than the live event. I would therefore argue that for Three Kingdoms the creative team, which I define as very much including the playwright as an intrinsic part of the process from conception to execution, purposefully produced a result that required to not only be seen but also experienced as a performance moment for its full affect to come into being. It might be tempting to approach the question reductively and suggest that the expressionistic representation and heavy symbolism originate entirely in the German theatrical tradition that Nübling contributed, but the “hallucinatory” effect that Stephens pointedly speaks of constitutes more of a collective state than a culturally specific one. It is therefore particularly poignant that, as one of their methods for working to build cultural bridges, playwright, director and company resort to a means that will invariably function to interconnect spectators of different nationalities and sensibilities: the combination of humanity with animality.
8In this play, the two concepts and states of being are brought together not as binaries, but, rather, as directly interacting and reciprocal aspects of experience. Beyond attempting to establish commonalities and broad international appeal on the basis of lowest common denominators, the production turns, instead, to the underlying shared instinct lying at the primal level. This could be described, more specifically, as our relationship with nature, human or otherwise, to include, of course, animals and our perception of their images, and what they represent; the physicality of animals and their capability of attack against each other, as well as against humans; finally, the threat that humans pose to animals when the latter are conceptualised as prey, mere objects for consumption, or readily available targets. It is also, of course, a question of appreciating, as Lourdes Orozco observes, the implications of animals treated as tropes, mere possessions to attest to humans’ status and authority, deprived, in that sense, of their own embodiment for the sake of establishing the power of their master(s) (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 16-19).
9Three Kingdoms delves into different manifestations of what might be seen as animalistic behaviour: from sexual exchanges intended only for facile consumption and devoid of any emotion, to an emphasis on human flesh that is presented as a commodity that might be as easily – and without any moral questioning – traded, bought and consumed as that of an animal. At a pivotal point in the play we also hear of the dead woman being described as someone who “fucked like a dead cow. [. . .] She was a stinking rotten piece of fucking meat” (Three Kingdoms 46). The offensive language that Stephens deploys serves the purpose of launching a direct attack against the master and slave narrative emblematic of modern-day sex trade in presumably civilised societies. This directly challenges any assumption that, in our time in the developed world, human right violations are diminishing. One of the most shocking moments in the play stems from the verbal violence, misogyny and abusive physical imagery rampant in the words through which the dead woman’s father describes his daughter: “She was a whore. She was a pain in the arse. […] She smelt fucking disgusting. I really, you know, hated her” (Three Kingdoms 115). Through its brutal honesty, therefore, the play reveals a context where a woman marketed as part of the sex trade, an individual clearly forced to suffer a disjunction between mind and body long before the physical manifestation of the event, the decapitation, took place, is seen as an unimportant, inferior creature by her own father, no less.
10Crucially, Three Kingdoms also reveals a context where the animal, equally offensively, is perceived of as an inferior, degraded form of life. There are two parts to this problematic: firstly the assumed obedience of the animal to human will, which implies the former’s subjugation and lack of rights. Secondly, the fact that a female in a socially vulnerable position, coming from the less affluent parts of the continent that exports her for her flesh can only ever be conceptualised as equivalent to that – bereft of free will. Reflecting on why animals serve as highly affective means of metaphorically representing the immigrant, Una Chaudhuri argues: “we relate to ethnic and national others, as we do to animals, as much on the basis of what we don’t know about them as what we do” (8). In Three Kingdoms we are dealing with the complex figure, and the transient body of the female migrant – one whose choices were made and exercised by others, one who was forced into drifting and non-identity. At the same time we are confronted with the image of the pursued, hunted, at-risk animal. The semiosis of the metaphor for the equivalence of the two entities, subject to disappearing without a perpetrator being held accountable, is established robustly.
11Orozco’s Theatre & Animals offers a wide-ranging approach to understanding what the ‘animal’ has the potential to mean in performance. A major part of the discussion concerns the relationship of human to animal and the tensions in that relationship (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 3). With performance as the lens through which Orozco’s analysis is framed, considerations of the animal as a stage component are diverse and sophisticated. In a point that is particularly relevant to a ‘European’ play such as Three Kingdoms, Orozco notes how “animal presence has become a regular feature of experimental theatre practices in contemporary Europe” (ibid.). She adds that “the link between animals and fear, the wild and the uncontrollable is a fascination that has come to define human-animal interactions in performance and beyond” (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 10). Indeed, when animal images – or, to be precise, humans wearing partial animal guise make their appearance in Three Kingdoms the element of fear is strikingly dominant; even beyond fear, we are dealing with a tangible threat, emanating from the precariousness of prey, as humans are giving in to basic instincts.
12Defining prey is significant. Orozco provides an overview of how animals have been treated in philosophical discourse, suggesting that until the nineteenth century animals were primarily treated as “different, and in most cases inferior, objects that existed to assist humankind in its development and progression” (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 21). The animal was also deemed to be, as Orozco adds with reference to Kant, “a key agent in defining the human, and in maintaining the hierarchical dynamics that make humankind superior to other creatures” (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 22). I argue that such comments are crucial to understanding the key symbolism in Three Kingdoms, particularly in the context of Orozco’s discussion of a specific case study (the work of Kira O’Reilly) which enables her to arrive at the observation that certain performances have the capacity to “place human and animal bodies in a space that dilutes their boundaries”, “invok[ing] hybridity as a way of understanding the human and the animal” (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 29). Theatre & Animals synthesises different parameters towards an understanding of the treatment and mistreatment of animals by humans, pertinent to my analysis in this essay. I would propose that the use of animals in Three Kingdoms also points directly to humans’ mistreatment of each other. In a long history of animals being deployed as a form of fanciful prop in performance, the hybrid human/animal emerges as one of the most apt contemporary metaphors for how, in Western societies, underprivileged individuals have also come to be abused as props in a process of vicious pursuit and trade, carrying that same exoticism that has often been attributed to animals, particularly those that are seen as the tropes of privilege and power (cf. Orozco, Theatre & Animals, 2013: 16).
13This idea also connects to Stephens’s view of the play (quoted above) as an active effort to take on the modern manifestations of imperialist behaviours that still resonate in post-colonial Europe. Still, as the play renders abundantly clear, there exist relationships of inferiority and superiority at the level of the national as well as the individual. The play challenges the notional divide that arguably lingers between the East and West in Europe, the tropes of which are, all too regularly, women exhibited as creatures available for consumption. Orozco writes of the ability that animals have in performance to “destabilise the real” (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 4), an observation which I consider to be particularly applicable to Three Kingdoms, especially when taken alongside Orozco’s comment on the animal as “allegorical subject or as example of human transformation” (Theatre & Animals, 2013: 14). If we look at the cover of the playtext of Three Kingdoms, we see a woman dressed in little else but heels and a fur coat. Where her own head would normally be, there is the head of an animal – depending on perspective and interpretation, it could be the head of an antelope, or the head of a fox. I would argue that how we choose to interpret this inevitably also communicates our own preconceptions as to the type of woman that might have been involved in this storyline: the stereotype of what the specific animal stands for is the equivalent of what the stereotype of the human it corresponds to represents. The animal, therefore, defines the human.
14On the cover of the playtext we are offered a highly striking, full body image of what is considered a noble animal (antelope), or one that is cunning and potentially threatening (fox), though what they both have in common is the desirability of their prey. In these moments where we encounter the hybrid human/animal, human facial features are entirely irrelevant as a personification effect is accomplished, akin to the storytelling methods commonly associated with ancient and/or folk forms of narratives (primarily fables) where the animal would act not merely as metaphor for the human, but as cautionary tale. I maintain that for spectators of the premiere production, as the playtext (in its UK version at least) and any related promotional material also demonstrate, the image of the hybrid human/animal lingers more persistently than any other in a staging that in any case relied on the exhibition of human bodies – or, more appropriately, of flesh – quite heavily. During the production, the image of the woman/animal recurs, as she stands still or moves slowly on the stage, target and captive in equal measure, emblematic of the violence that the body sustains by its hunter. This is complemented by the stage presence of men, whose own heads have been replaced by wolf heads, lurking in the background. These images, of course, imply and implicate the men who first targeted and victimised this woman and who, after pursuing her relentlessly and violently extracting all that they desired from her physically, eventually killed and disposed of her.
15As it reveals how the desired animal succumbs to its hunter, the play becomes a vehicle for an equally peering look at the mentality of both victim and perpetrator. In order to demonstrate violence between humans, Stephens’s play is suggestive – without ever demonstrating this overtly – of violence between animals, bringing to the stage such hybrid creatures that vivify collective fears by ‘destabilising’ the way we have come to respond to events. The image of the woman we see in Stephens and Nübling’s stagescape, memorable, haunting and otherworldly, follows in a tradition of obscuring the boundaries between human and animal nature that we have seen representational art delve into systematically, particularly within a surrealist context. One need only bring to mind the multiple examples found within the body of work of René Magritte, where the two natures often appear seamlessly interwoven into a kind of creature that makes an equal claim on both; or, indeed, moving closer to the aesthetics of the play and production, we might consider a less canonical yet equally relevant example such as Birgit Jürgenssen’s Ohne Titel (Selbst mit Fellchen), an artwork in the form of a self-portrait in the photography medium (1974)2. Here, the artist, her hair pulled back, conceals part of her face, including her forehead, eyes and nose with a piece of animal fur, adapting the facial expression of her cheekbones and mouth to follow the symmetry of the ‘foreign’ material. In this way, as in Three Kingdoms, we observe the human form adopt and adapt to the animal features, shape and textures, not merely in alienating artificiality but in congruent intermeshing. What emerges is arresting and immediately commands the spectator’s attention – even before we may begin to rationalise it.
16In her 2012 review of Three Kingdoms, Sarah Hemming observed: “The subject matter is something you find in a police drama. The treatment is anything but” (11). It is true that Three Kingdoms, on a primary level, is a murder mystery; a detective narrative. Meanwhile, underneath the surface, beyond its grotesque imagery, Stephens’s play is an important discovery process of the contemporary (in)human condition: one that tests the boundaries between animality and civilisation to throw the assumption that we have evolved past primal instincts in serious doubt – but also, to question why, morally, some humans might deem themselves worthy of considering animals an inferior form of life given the violence in the transgressions that occur between humans. What Stephens’s play accomplishes through its visual and verbal references to animals is indeed to radically question the belief that humanity is a superior form of life when, in the name of laissez-faire, it enables, if not facilitates, the abuse of vulnerable women (and of course also men, though this may not be the focal point of the specific play) on an everyday basis.
17Through the inclusion of animal visuals and physicality and the slowing down of action and perception that this stage imagery instigates, the play transports us to a different plane of thinking from the immediate here and now that the social realism of the police narrative plays itself out on and is invested in: in these moments, the play crosses over, beyond the expressionistic, also to the surreal. There is a certain poetry in how this is staged: in how the animal image immediately captures our gaze and attention through its stillness in a way dramatically different from how the fast-paced, visceral, often shocking action of the play otherwise unfolds. Hemming’s use of the word ‘treatment’ in her review is quite important: it points to a process of gradual exposition and, I would also argue, of dissection of nature and behaviour. Hemming goes on to make reference to “a hallucinatory stage-world that, at its best, brilliantly conveys the [police]men’s disorientation […] the stuff of nightmares” (ibid.). Returning to the animal imagery in Three Kingdoms, it is in the midst of these ‘hallucinatory’ moments – a recurring term in the rhetoric surrounding the play – that the truth of criminal human exploitation emerges with extraordinary clarity. It is also important to note that in a play that is rather expansive in its thematic coverage and also its duration, a point that Hemming also makes, expressing a preference for a more economical approach that might have made the point more effectively and better retained spectatorial attention (11), the device of animal imagery is indeed used relatively sparingly. This serves to retain the mystification and mesmerising affect it instigates, as noted above. Therefore, I conclude that quite on the contrary to Michael Billington’s view that “[the] production looks less like an attack on excess than a demonstration of it” (29), even though the original staging might have indulged in its wide-ranging coverage, excess was in fact crucial to the point the play sought to make. This point is that we can all be voyeurs and, are, in fact, precisely this, if we subscribe to the narrative of a civilised co-existence and refuse to acknowledge the problem in the ongoing exploitation of fellow human beings. The balance the play struck through the transitions to the animal imagery moments and the oscillation this accomplished between the haunting world of absurdist reverie and reality proves the rather purposeful image selection that informed the building of the play into the version we saw in 2011-12. The stark criticism of “the flesh market” that Billington’s review (ibid.) recognises finds an original articulation in this play: even though, by habitual interpretation, the ‘flesh’ is typically associated with the animal, traded and consumed, entirely subservient in this process, Three Kingdoms, rather, reverses this received, facilely internalised way of viewing events. It does so by exhibiting the ruthlessness of intra-human behaviour as the same import/export processes are applied, transposing the element of passivity and carnivorous violence back onto the human realm, rather than the animal. In this sense, it probes the primal understanding of the human body as the object of potential sacrifice. The image of the animal, therefore, however artificial and even though it is a prop – in a way preserving the ‘correctness’ of the play by keeping real animals away from the field of saturated human excess – is associated with a compromised immediacy and honesty of experience, directly challenging the assumed progress of humanity.