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.