The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Spring 2012
As part of World Stages London, in which several London producing theatres are hosting international co-productions, the Lyric Hammersmith presents this British-German-Estonian offering, written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sebastian Nübling, designed by Ene-Liis Semper and being performed in all three countries.
In Stephens' play British cops find a severed head and follow the trail through London prostitutes, German pornographers and Estonian traffickers, searching for a kingpin who may or may not actually exist. The trek is compounded by the fact that the British detective speaks no foreign languages and must rely in translators or simply be at a loss (About 50% of the play is in English, the rest translated for us through surtitles.)
What is at its core a rather conventional police procedural, subcategory everyone-is-interconnected, sub-subcategory ironically unresolved ending (c.f. The Usual Suspects or Chinatown) is placed in a production designed to convey both the depths of corruption being uncovered and the nightmarish quality of the investigation.
The whores and some of the hoods wear animal heads, there's nudity and simulated sex, and a lounge singer periodically punctuates events by crooning incongruous songs. A scene that I'm sure was written for four men sitting around a table is played with them sparring in a gym, and simple entrances and exits are as likely to be through windows as doors.
Some of this is effective in capturing the surreal experience of the English detective who literally doesn't understand anything. (I'm told that in the script the detective does speak German and it is his sergeant who needs translations; this way is much better.)
But a lot of it seems like razzle-dazzle, an irrelevant overlay to show off the director's cleverness or to bask in some faux-decadence that is actually about as threatening and shocking as Victorian pornography.
The play's observations – that modern crime is international, that on the street level you can't always tell the good guys from the bad guys (especially when some are both – the cast includes both an undercover agent in the villain's gang and a bent cop), and that sometimes the good guys have to be satisfied with very partial victories – are all made effectively, and some of the extraneous effects are entertaining in themselves.
But one can't escape the suspicion that what the playwright had to say could have been said just as effectively without all the see-how-clever-I-am direction and design, and that the razzle-dazzle itself isn't enough to sustain a nearly-three-hour play.
Nicolas Tennant movingly captures the journey into hell of the British cop who is fully in control at the start and totally lost by the end, and Steven Scharf is amusing as a German cop with a masochistic bent and a Beatles fixation.
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