There’s a scene at the end of She She Pop’s Testament, part of this year’s LIFT, in which the four performers and three of their fathers stand in line reciting lines that all begin with ‘I forgive you’. Someone once called his daughter a cow and someone gave a chauvinistic piece of advice to his 17 year old son. Yet the father who needs forgiving the most – the one who confused parenting with making sunday roast – remains present only in his absence.
This might be because while no parent-child relationship is perfect, only a parent at least somewhat confident in this relationship would agree to make a show about it and then tour the world with it. As the only ‘fatherless’ performer continues to come up with statements that indicate prolonged emotional neglect, it becomes clear that using King Lear as a template for personal exploration is not without its faults: compared to Lear and his daughters, fathers and children present on the stage have relationships that look almost carefree.
German collective She She Pop are aware of this and their deconstruction of King Lear, act by act and from one key verse to another, is only partly an attempt to find personal and contemporary parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedy. In fact the relative mundanity of the company’s experiences is used to de-emotionalise the set up. There are no tearful scenes, reconciliations or indeed treacheries, instead the children boil down Lear and in turn the relationships with their parents to mere transactions: dividing up a kingdom becomes an inheritance battle for an original Lichtenstein, those who haven’t produced offspring of their own demand compensation for all the time spent with existing grandchildren, and one performer complains that much like Lear’s 100 strong entourage, her father’s books would never fit into her flat. This commodification of love, in the vein of Goneril and Regan, doesn’t ring untrue but is also predictable, much like the paternal defence of Lear, his need for recognition, respect, care and appreciation.
This stubborn insistence on maintaining a distance from the parent’s ageing process and simultaneous victimisation of fathers, simplifies one of the most important relationships in life into a cul-de-sac. The show is mostly poignant in moments marked by things unsaid, pushed aside or overlooked – like the unadorned but ignored second in which Ilia Papatheodorou confesses to her father Theo that his native Greek is not being passed on through the family. The elders’ rehearsal reluctance, their threats of leaving the project and a lack of understanding for the youngsters’ theatre methods in general all make it through to the performance courtesy of recorded delivery, but while his comrades have since adopted the stage and now perform disagreement, Theo Papatheodorou becomes a one-man protest. He rarely speaks, takes part in little other than group scenes and is generally absent – though rather than addressing this development in any way, She She Pop treat it as a glitch in the script and do everything in their power to dramaturgically conceal it.
Testament does offer several explosive gems. An hour into the show, a father sings I Will Always Love You, while a daughter recites everything she will have to do for him once old age kicks in – from calling once a week, to turning him every two hours to avoid the bed sores; at the edge of the stage another performer slowly pulls up a white flag of surrender to horrors that await. However, these moments too often get drowned in countless segments of stagnating self-indulgence, epitomised in a sequence that sees three pairs of fathers and children listening to the parent’s favourite song, occasionally lip-syncing to it. The company also never quite resolve their relationship to King Lear; the reinterpretation of its events through a banalising contemporary lens is juggled with occasional attempts to recreate actual tensions, especially as Shakespeare’s play marches on, but the conflict between the two approaches is never even acknowledged.
These are all technical issues however. The more relevant one is that the company brings on a generation of fathers to the stage and then only allows them to speak when spoken to – even their complaints have been pre-treated by professionals. Personal tensions, personal arguments and what must have been very complicated personal negotiations with parents, clashed against theatrical imperatives and unsurprisingly theatre won, leaving very little that has not been embellished, re-touched or over-scripted. Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and Lear all figure some stuff out in between the first and the last line, but in Testament the kids take the generational gap, weaponise it and then spend two hours reigning their fathers down for the purposes of creating theatre.