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A CurtainUp London London Review
Three Kingdoms

You know what are the four virtues of doing business? There is Prudence – to buy low and sell high. There is Temperance – to save and accumulate. There is Justice – to pay willingly for good work. And there is Courage – the courage to venture on new ways of business. — Michael.
Three Kingdoms
Çigdem Teke and Ferdy Roberts
(Photo: Ene-Liis Semper)
Written for World Stages London, Simon Stephen’s play Three Kingdoms engrosses with the intelligence of an Ian Rankin thriller and the puzzlement of a film by David Lynch. Set in London, Munich and Tallinn, Estonia, there are three cultural pulls on this play with a British writer, a German director, Sebastian Nübling, and Ene-Liis Semper, an Estonian designer.

The play opens in a police station in Hammersmith where there has been the grisly discovery of a girl’s head in the river. Two policemen Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts) and Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) are investigating by interviewing a kid from the White City Estate, Tommy White (Rupert Simonian) who was seen lobbing the bag into the river on CCTV. They interview a German vice king Aleksandr Richter (Lass Myhr) who says that the girl was working for the Estonian Andres Rebane (Jaak Prints) who in turn works for the crime boss known only as The White Bird. The trail takes them to Munich Germany where they see a slice of the pornographic film industry and eventually to Estonia, where it is thought the men recruiting and controlling the vice girls are from.

Simon Stephens explains in the text that his play is just the starting point for the production which has elements that were devised in rehearsal before it opened in Tallinn last September. The scenes in each country are playing the appropriate language with surtitles above the stage translating into English. Laced into the murder mystery are elements of the surreal. For instance, the girls wear a hind head with big Bambi eyes increasing the impression of their vulnerability as frightened victims in the sex industry. Similarly the young Estonians, capitalist blades in immaculate grey suits wear wolf heads, their teeth barred leaving us in no doubt about their motives. And they have nicknamed themselves after characters in The Godfather. Ene-Liis Sepmper’s set is anonymous, it could be anywhere, pale painted concrete walls with apertures at the side for the athletic actors to dive in and out of.

Some of Three Kingdoms is hard to stomach with the extended porn scenes using giant strap on phalluses. This is no mild Agatha Christie crime novel adaptation but something altogether more challenging, edgy and distasteful. There are other curious moments: the hotel workers, in green dresses, both men and woman, silently pushing floor mops at the rear of the stage listening covertly to the conversations of the detectives. I was genuinely chilled by the kick boxing of the German pimp and his cynical attitude to the women prostitutes. We meet Ignatius’ wife Caroline (Çigdem Teke) who is the same age as the murdered girl and we feel him thinking about her as he searches for the perpetrator, the White Bird. There are jokier bits too, lines from popular music and the tune “Una Paloma Blanca”.

Unlike the usual theatre genre of crime, there is so much more to think about from this production. Simon Stephens is making a point about the vilification of the Other, in this case the attribution to Eastern Europeans of involvement in crime and the sex industry in Western Europe rather than addressing crime at home. Why is it so much more threatening that these children, brought up in the post Perestroika countries of Eastern Europe, have espoused the ethics of capitalism and opportunities for making money taken to extremes of wealth and corruption? When the Estonian Michael says, “In the future, we’ll be finding girls in London and selling them to Beijing. We’ll be finding girls in Paris and selling them to Mumbai. We’ll be finding girls in Frankfurt and selling them to Rio de Janeiro. We’ll be finding girls in Amsterdam and selling them to Moscow,” it is deeply shocking.

The production movement and direction makes Three Kingdoms exciting to watch and adds to the suspenseful, haunting atmosphere. Nicholas Tennant as Ignatius links all three acts as he tries to find the White Bird and is subject to trickery and betrayal. Underlying the essential decency of his character doing a dirty job is concern for his wife. I liked too, acting details like the interesting angles slouched against a wall from Ferdy Roberts as Charlie, watching from the sidelines, subtle contrasts with the more pugilistic, gymnastic in yer face Estonians. Steven Scharf is Steffen Dresser the Affable German cop who hosts Charlie and Iggy in Munich. The Brad Pitt of Estonia, Risto Kübar’s thin presence is there in all three countries; his character is called the Trickster and will appear as a body in the morgue or as a transvestite or moving background wallpaper and doesn’t speak.

Like a good novel you will want to return to Three Kingdoms knowing that there will be much else you hadn’t got to grips with at first sight but the run is impossibly short for such a compelling production. The contrasting three posters for the production in the three countries are telling: the British one shows a colour photograph of a girl in a deer’s head, skin coat, fishnets and high heels, the German poster is in black and white Gothic script with no image and the Estonian is a black and white photograph, of a man naked to the waist with two women, one her face smeared in blood and the other holding a camera.

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Three Kingdoms
Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Sebastian Nübling

Starring: Nicholas Tennant, Ferdy Roberts, Risto Kübar, Steven Scharf
With: Rupert Simonian, Çigdem Teke, Jaak Prints, Gert Raudsep, Mirtel Pohla, Sergo Vares, Lasse Myhr, Rasmus Kaljujärv, Tambet Tuisk
Design by Ene-Liis Semper
Lighting: Stephan Mariani
Composer and Sound: Lars Wittershagen
Dramaturg: Julia Lochte and Eero Epner
Running time: Two hours 55 minutes with one interval
A production for World Stages London between the Lyric Hammersmith, Munich Kammerspiele and Teater NO99.
Box Office: 0871 22 117 29 or
Booking to 19th May 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th May 2012 performance at the Lyric Theatre, King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 0QL (Tube: Hammersmith)

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