Ah, those wacky groups of German theatre-makers, deconstructing everything they lay hands on! What will they get up to next – doing King Lear with their own fathers and punctuating it with renditions of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid”? Well, funnily enough … Berlin-based company She She Pop do indeed investigate the relevance of Shakespeare’s generational conflicts and deals – riches for love – by inviting their septuagenarian dads onstage with them and examining both general aspects of father/daughter relationships (Sebastian Bark counts as an honorary daughter) and the particularities of the families here present.
Although the piece is now five years old, the parents generally maintain an air of spontaneity and engagement, even if hard pressed when wearing headphones to repeat their own words exactly in several sequences apparently culled verbatim from the rehearsal process. Most winning is Bark’s father Joachim, a deadpan ironist. Ilia Papatheodorou’s father Theo is more ambivalent about the company’s approach, and Peter Halmburger (father of Fanni) remains largely silent except when drawing on his experience as an architect to discuss how Lear might best ration his wealth to his daughters or fit into their homes.
The company at once perform and parody this kind of pseudery, well aware of the absurdity of their graphs and diagrams (and at one point a dance sequence to a Dolly Parton number) to illustrate aspects of the Lear situation. Yet gradually they push beyond the ridiculous and back round into real insight. Theo’s worries about personal dignity, and an unsettling sequence in which the company strip their fathers and don their clothes, suggest that Lear’s demands for respect are not simply arrogant but spring from a common need for indulgence, for the agreed pretence of power as the real thing diminishes in old age. Daughterly love becomes a matter of forgiveness and forbearance, and the Papatheodorous’ reprise of “Somethin’ Stupid” brings out the familial affection that underlies the weirdness of father and daughter duetting on such a song.
Two uninterrupted hours of this is a bit much, but King Lear itself is hardly a quickie. It is fitting that this should be one of the opening offerings of this year’s London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), since the event has done so much to acquaint London audiences with work like this.