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Belated Preparations for a New Generation Based on Lear*

By Anita Rákóczy

By She She Pop
Berlin Theatertreffen 2011


In all old men there's something of King Lear!
Comrades, whom adversity had proved,
Long ago were laid to rest.
The loved and loving, all the best,
Now to others elsewhere have removed.
Youth has its own course through the world to steer,
And so it would be futile to request:
'Come, grow old along with me.'.

--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe**


"Have you got anything saved for your retirement, daddy? When you die, who will look after my stepmother? How about my inheritance? Does it affect the share-out that my brother has already got two children? If you cannot provide for yourself any more and move in with me, you won't want to bring your drill along, will you?"

I have attended the Theatertreffen Festival a few times in Berlin as a dramaturg and theater critic from Budapest, Hungary. Every year, the Theatertreffen presents the ten "most remarkable," highest-standard German-language productions of the season. Since 2002 these have been selected by a panel of seven theater specialists, whose membership changes every three years. The most original show I saw in 2011 was Testament, a documentary stage production by the independent theater group She She Pop. In the co-production by Hebbel Am Ufer Berlin, Kampnagel Hamburg and FFT Düsseldorf, Shakespeare's King Lear was restructured in such a way that instead of classical narration, the generational conflict between Lear and his three daughters was the focus of attention and used as a medium for discussion of the present.

The actors-creators invited their OWN (!) fathers to center stage for a cosy family gathering, in order to talk through the five acts of King Lear. The key scenes of Shakespeare's text were projected onto a screen throughout the show and served as a brilliantly structured background for the dialogue -- a daring, straightforward, taboo-less dialogue about time, money, aging and succession. However, since we do not manage to work out answers to everything in life, the actors inventively put their fathers in a coffin near the end, hoping that in their last pleas the truth might come out, or at least something might be clarified -- say, the PIN of a credit card, the gay adventures, back in his heyday in the army, of a father who now cannot accept his homosexual son. Unspoken feelings are buried deep within them all.

She She Pop is a seven-member performance collective based in Berlin and Hamburg. It was founded in 1998 by students at Justus-Liebig University Giessen, exactly the same institution where the artists of the internationally renowned theater group Rimini Protokoll graduated. She She Pop's permanent members are Sebastian Bark, Johanna Freiburg, Fanni Halmburger, Lisa Lucassen, Mieke Matzke, Ilia Papatheodorou, and Berit Stumpf. Testament was the first time they based a piece on a classical drama -- a more reserved structure than their usual genre, interactive theatre. In all their other shows, the audience has been radically drawn in to their artistic decisions and theatrical actions around conference-tables, camp fires, or on candle-lit blind dates.

There are three blank screens in the background. A woman is standing in front of a blackboard, with something attached to her heart that reminds me of ventilator tubes. On the right we can see projected the first page of King Lear, and three armchairs with microphones are on the left. Lear's daughters appear on the stage one after the other -- one happens to be a man -- and the actors start talking about their own, real-life fathers. As soon as the dramatic text on the blackboard indicates Lear's entrance, the daughters circle the words "the king is coming" with chalk. With a flourish of trumpets, the fathers then turn up without delay, stop beside their children for an instant, then seat themselves in their armchairs to "reign" in full radiance while they can. Apart from distinctive Shakespearean collars and uniform boots hinting at a royal origin, they look like average fathers in blue jeans, all in their seventies. At this moment, super-size close-up images of three kings appear on the background screens, a gesture of respect of the sort paid to totalitarian leaders. The three offspring walk to their procreators' unreachable mega-portraits and start singing -- with Frank Sinatra -- for a little attention and time spent together: "I know I stand in line until you think / You have the time to spend an evening with me…"

Testament operates on at least three different dramaturgical levels, all linked to King Lear. The stage action progresses along the key scenes of the tragedy. The relevant sections are either read out loud or projected on the background while the daughters of the king(s) lead our eyes by manually highlighting certain lines of the text, thus giving us their own interpretation of the play. In the meantime, the dialogue, a confrontation, is taking place between the fathers and their offspring in the form of questions and answers. The members of She She Pop try their best to make "belated preparations" for generational change with panic-stricken speed while they can, as if rushing to finish within the show's two-hour duration (and within the limited lifetimes of the characters and the actors).

However, Testament goes further: the production also documents and records the phases of its own creation process. The artists do not stop at examining a taboo topic while adapting a dramatic classic. They also address the search for the right artistic form in their creative process, and include their failures. The show reflects on the methods of adaptation, the changes of attitude and mind-set of the actors, and it seems that the members of She She Pop wanted to stage not only the results of the in-depth interviews conducted with their fathers but also the complete flow of the rehearsal process with all its self-revelation, exhibitionism, humiliation and loss of dignity.

9 August, 2009 -- the first rehearsal with the fathers. The sons and daughters put their headsets on, as always when they time-travel into the past, listening to their past selves. Oral history. It is the period when one of the fathers had moved in with his son for a while, and accidentally broke a glass in the sink. While discreetly picking up the splinters, his son wonders whether to mention it to his father or not. During the first meeting, the young generation plans the new show -- a play about the fear of retirement, about money and deceit. They decide to direct and write the roles of the fathers, as "we are the bosses here, at last, we will decide what happens on stage, no matter how much we attempt to conceal this fact."

In the wealth-distribution scene, the actors of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia distance themselves from the others. They make their fathers read out Lear's soliloquy, then Goneril explains the king's intentions to them. They are outsiders after all; they should be given guidance and interpretation: Lear is dividing up and distributing his realm while still alive, by organizing a rhetorical contest between his daughters. All he needs at this point is loving arms and compassion, as he is just about to give up his power of his own free will. Although he has become a toothless lion, he still demands respect and honor. He wants compensation: declaration of love in exchange for real estate.

The members of She She Pop attempt to clarify all the touchy issues of the father-daughter relationships, as in ten to fifteen years they will have to look after these very daddies. The suggestion is that this clarification has to be done before it is too late, before the past is beyond reach, before the closeness of death revaluates it all to become "all the same," and while the parties on both sides can still talk and listen to each other. "Why have you always been disgusted by bodily details, daddy?" "I do not have a university degree, how do you feel about it? " "We depend on our inheritance, it's not fair. I am thirty-nine years old and haven`t got a child, perhaps I never will, are you mad at me, daddy?"

By this time the fathers are squirming in embarrassment, and one of them cries out: "Everything smells of conflict here! Limit the conflict!" Then he walks to the blackboard, and begins to answer the questions. Being a physicist, he has no intention of entering into sentimental discussions. Instead, he draws up a system of equations that analyzes the relationship between Lear and his daughters by correlating wealth and love. As a good teacher, he systematically demonstrates that the daughters' signs of affection activate the financial domains of the fathers. Although the man seems to be taking his task seriously, and tries his best to make the most of it, this scene exemplifies perfectly that it is not enough to ask straightforward questions about issues that can scarcely be put into words, expecting to get real answers to them. We must be prepared for others not to understand us, or not to receive the answer we were waiting for, or to get it in a way we had not expected.The daughter of the physicist bursts out in a rage: "Thanks dad, but you have missed the point of what I was asking. What if I won't have any children? My brother has two, half of the inheritance is mine. It`s not fair."

If we are going to count, let's do it properly and get to the bottom of it. "Okay, daddy, let's see how many hours a week you spend with the children of my brother under the pretext of cultural education." This time the young woman approaches the blackboard, and soon comes up with the calculated result that her father has spent four hours a week with the grandchildren for the last eleven years. At this point, Sebastian Bark's father pulls out of his pocket a poem, kept there especially for this occasion, and starts reading it out loud. It was written by one of their relatives for Sebastian's confirmation, and now is meant to convey the following message: Be a man! Start to act like a man! Don't be a fag! Sebastian is just about to protest against the paternal advice when his father, perhaps as a strange sign of acceptance, announces to the audience that although his son is gay, he will pay in full for Sebastian's "deconstructivist" education. In the meantime, the daugther of the physicist has calculated the market value of child-care in cash terms, based on the 35-euro hourly wage of a retired scientist, multiplied by the number of grandchildren. Papa has spent a total of 229,320 euros on the grandchildren since the first one was born. The childless daughter demands compensation. Consequently, the physicist decides to quit and leaves the stage (understood as a past rehearsal space): he does not want to get his family into trouble.

In the second act, Goneril and Regan cut down the number of Lear's attendants radically. What could be the meaning of those "one hundred knights" today? What will happen, when the need comes, and one of the young women has no other choice but to move Peter, her old father, from his home in Frankfurt into her Berlin apartment? In an instant, the ground-plans of the two properties appear on the blackboard. Will there be enough space in the daughter's flat for Peter's bookshelves, his "hundred knights"? Hardly. "You will have to learn to let things go, daddy." Peter likes the thought of the co-existence of the generations. He draws up a plan of what his room should look like. He would need a desk, a small bookshelf, the door should open straight to his daughter's kitchen, the fridge should be full of beer and delicacies. Also, he would definitely take his Lichtenstein picture with him to Berlin, the one he bought in New York in 1969 on the day of the moon landing. In Peter's opinion, Lear is undergoing a loss of status, and his daughters are making him defenceless knight by knight. So what is "a hundred knights?" In this case, perhaps it's a coat to keep us warm. We must not tear it up. There must be something left for us. This is part of the contract between the generations. It is nonsense that all we hear on stage today are demands and expectations. Of course, he is taking his electric drill kit, bicycle and trumpet along to Berlin: "I have got my dignity while I can hold the drill…"

A forgettable dance scene follows, performed to the song "My dear hard working daddy works his life away," but fortunately it passes quickly like everything else. Then a young woman steps to a microphone and starts talking. Directions for nursing one's aging father. Her monologue begins with a lot of humor, then gently, imperceptibly, the tone becomes serious. Get him to change his underwear on a regular basis, spend a lot of time playing with him, wipe the urine off his toilet floor, trim the hairs out of his nose, change the bag beside his bed, smile, read to him, talk to him as if he understands.

The fathers line up at the front of the stage and introduce themselves: they give their names, ages and the names of their children. At this moment, the daughters take the shirts off their fathers, and slip into them themselves. Their progenitors are left there in undervests. The daughters sit in their fathers' armchairs, put on three crowns -- their eyes shine with joy, their day has come, they have seized power while the fathers stand dispossessed. The daughters then undress them further, take their watches off -- thank you for this brutal and accurate movement -- and they put everything on with victorious smiles. The fathers, all over seventy, as mentioned, blink in front of us almost naked, with bodies that show the unmistakable signs of growing old.

The evening could just as well end here, but two acts are still ahead. The only shortcoming or directorial failure of Testament is that it produces such a powerful ending to every act that each would make a proper finale. Therefore, unfortunately, the play ends three or four times. At the reunion of Lear and Cordelia, for example, a woman comes to the front of the stage and delivers a monologue clearly, simply. Her father could not be persuaded to take part in the show. He is not getting any younger, it is no use fighting with him any more, but she has figured out a way to leave nothing unresolved between them. She forgives him. That is the key. She starts listing exactly what there is to forgive, then all the others join in and in chorus shout out their own issues to be forgiven.

It would be time to go home after these cathartic moments, but I suspect that the future still holds something for us, namely the fifth act. The greatest danger of linear structures is calculability. Suddenly, a paper coffin appears center stage, and one of the fathers climbs into it. The daughters shut the lid. "How are you, papa?" "Fine. It is a little dark in here." Then each daughter and son on stage sits beside the coffin one after the other, and asks his or her belated questions. "What should be put on your gravestone?" Finally, they all climb into the coffin, on top of each other. That is where the generations ultimately meet.


*A preliminary version of this article was published in Hungarian by Színház Journal in August 2011. Special thanks to Goethe Institut, Budapest, Fulbright Foreign Student Program, Hungarian-American Commission for Educational Exchange, the U.S. Department of State and Institute of International Education. I hereby acknowledge that the views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

**unpublished translation by Bernard Adams, from: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gedichte. Zweiter Theil, Neue Auflage (Stuttgart und Tübingen: J. G. Cotta’ schen Buchhandlung, 1829), 301.

Photos: copyright Doro Tuch.


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