The subject matter is the sort you might find in many a mainstream police drama. The treatment is anything but. Simon Stephens’ play follows London detectives Ignatius and Charlie as they try to unravel a grisly murder case involving the severed head of a woman. It leads the two on an increasingly frustrating goose chase across Europe through the nasty underworld of pornography and sex trafficking as they search for the power base behind this vicious crime. But Sebastian Nübling’s staging (performed in English, German and Estonian by a multi-national cast as part of World Stages London) mixes the grit with pitch-black humour and surreal fantasy to create a hallucinatory stage-world that, at its best, brilliantly conveys the men’s disorientation. As Ignatius thrashes around, desperately trying to grasp a truth that slips further and further away, his sweaty discomfiture is the stuff of horribly vivid nightmares.
The detectives’ effectiveness slithers by degrees from their grasp. They open with a sardonic interrogation of a London lad who is a bit-player in the saga. But the further they get from their comfort zone, the stranger and more tawdry the stage world becomes, with characters appearing through cracks in the wall, standing on their heads or assuming animal features. The effect is cumulative and disorientating, and the combination of Stephens’ salty wit and Nübling’s surreal physicality produces some vivid expressions of the loneliness and dislocation of travel. The staging also suggests the brutal, misogynist nastiness of the sex trade, as a group of sharply-suited men discuss their next business move, and it graphically conveys the sordid tedium of pornographic movie-making, as a handful of blank-eyed performers strap on huge dildos, oil themselves down and get to work.
The show’s defect, though, is excess. It goes on much longer than it needs to and often in leisurely fashion, with too much slow-motion floor-mopping, too many enigmatic encounters, too many protracted songs, too many power rants. Elusiveness slips into obfuscation – why does Charlie suddenly vanish from the story? The second half becomes increasingly opaque and by the time somebody sticks his head into a haystack you’ve lost the inclination to care what it means.
The performances are intensely powerful, particularly Nicolas Tennant and Ferdy Roberts as the perplexed coppers and Steven Scharf as their bizarre German counterpart. And the whole piece is intentionally sad, sordid and surreal. But less would be more.