LET'S COUNT, DADDY
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
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
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
*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,