She She Pop and Their Fathers: Testament

Written for Exeunt

When I was 13 my dad spent an entire day driving me around Hampshire so that I could get the perfect green school skirt; not too daggy, not too short, not too dark, not too light – this was a quest of epic proportions that my dad bore with a seemingly unending patience. “It’s ok…” he said when I reached the end of my teenage tether “…you can pay me back when I’m older.”

There comes a tipping point in every parent-child relationship when the roles begin to shift. It’s these intergenerational dynamics that form the basis of German theatre collective She She Pop’s intensely personal exploration of King Lear. What happens if your parents have to move in with you? What will you allow them to bring? Can love be measured? Is there a link between love and property? These are Shakespearian concerns but, as Testament blindingly highlights, they are also very contemporary ones.

The twist here is that both generations are present on stage. These questions are debated between She She Pop’s fathers and their flamboyant offspring. Whilst their dads are consummate performers now, the making of this work has clearly cost them.  Using recorded delivery, we hear extracts from discussions where they want to walk out, moments when the barriers between these men and their daughters seem vast, insurmountable. They are going to enormous lengths for their children, fighting their sense of reserve in order to reveal themselves in public in this way.

While it’s touching, the piece  is never sentimental. The set design delights in the ridiculous with three comfy chairs acting as thrones; Elizabethan ruffs adorning the necks of our modern dress performers. There is a messy, thrown together feel to the production as a whole that belies a deep understanding of what will speak to a contemporary audience. Dolly Parton is mingled with Shakespearean poetry and She She Pop are clearly aware of how emotionally potent this mixture of high and low art can be. But they are not pushing buttons just for the sake of it and these complex relationships don’t always end in reconciliation.

The piece avoids naval gazing by providing a witty and incisive deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play. Ideas are unpacked with a cheeky composure, opening King Lear up with striking clarity. The concept of Lear’s 100 knights is placed under the microscope, with both sides presenting their argument for and against. Father and daughter do so honestly and at times harshly, sparing no blushes. I’ve never understood the complexity of this stipulation of Lear’s, simply putting it down to villainy on the part of Regan and Goneril. But now I see it from both sides; how the struggle is tied up in reasonable notions of practicality on the part of the child and – equally as understandable – pride from the fading patriarch. Neither side is right or wrong; these are just the battles which will affect us all one day.

This then is not a new way to look at Shakespeare’s epic tragedy but rather part of the search for a greater sense of understanding between ourselves and our parents. As I watch, thoughts of my own father pop into my mind and as I begin to well up, I realise that She She Pop have floored me completely.

For more information on She She Pop go here.

Review: King Lear @ The Roundhouse

Review: King Lear – RSC @ Roundhouse ****

Coming out from under the shadow of a much lauded Donmar Warehouse production (with Derek Jacobi as the eponymous King) the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear emerges victorious.

David Farr’s exhilarating production celebrates Shakespeare both as lauded poet and enthralling entertainer of the populace.  Farr’s company breathe new life into Lear evoking humanity in all its grotesque complexity. Within this tragedy comes a bubbling laughter that seeps up from an Elizabethan text and into the gurgling throats of a highly receptive 21st Century audience.

Framing this contemporary take perfectly is Jon Bausor’s thundering set. An active player in each scene it fizzles, clanks and strains as chains and steel cables shudder, always threatening to envelope each soul brave enough to stand up on stage. Bausor’s design even indulges in a couple of guilty pleasures along the way; with a flickering chandelier hinting cheekily towards that lord of commercial theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Farr keeps this healthy sense of showmanship ever present but in the midst of it all the story is told with breathtaking clarity. The whole cast is gloriously well honed, taking the kernel of truth at the heart of each line and nurturing it into something unexpected. Tunji Kasim may lack the gravitas for a true Machiavellian villain but his Edmund has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Movingly the moment of reconciliation between Charles Aitken’s spiritual Edgar and Geoffrey Freshwater’s honourable Gloucester gives us a poignant reminder that the young don’t always destroy the old.

With Kathryn Hunter’s shock departure Sophie Russell more than steps up to bat, taking on Hunter’s intended role admirably. Her Fool is a bitter harlequin whose canary voiced wisdom shakes our King and his audience to their very core. Her glassy eyes see everything and there is a melancholy to each flick and twisted turn that envelopes her constantly shifting form.

But last honours must go to Hicks. His Lear rails against an epic storm before even a drop of rain is felt and continues to do so long after it has dried as his age besets him.  An often underrated Shakespearian actor, his understanding of each moment is iron cast.  Hicks plays within this sinewy framework vividly, resulting in a truly unique performance at the heart of an original and invigorating King Lear.

Runs until 4th February 2011