Review – “Testament” (Germany, She She Pop) @ Harbourfront’s Worldstage 2013

Harbourfront – Enwave Theatre, April 17-20 @ 8PM.
Tickets $15-$50 All Ages. Duration 12o min.

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“Better thou /
hadst not been born than not t’ have pleas’d me better.”
-King Lear to his daughter Cordelia (King Lear 1.1.254-55).

“Daddy’s working boots /
Have filled their obligation.”
-Dolly Parton about her father’s shoes (“Daddy’s Working Boots”).

We of the developed world live in a rapidly aging society, where a baby boom that hugely benefited from the economic golden age after World War 2 have – in the eyes of some frustrated young people – run up a huge bill, thrown themselves a fabulous party, and are now preparing to leave us to pay the cheque. King Lear, the story of disastrous inheritances and children turning on their fathers seems an obvious metaphor for every aging parent who feels their child owes them care, but hasn’t the authority to enforce their requests (or demands).

German theatrical collective She She Pop, however, are luckily not content to simply present this relationship as obvious or appropriate – though their smart, frequently hilarious performance piece Testament: Belated Preparations for a New Generation based on Lear quotes Goethe’s maxim that “In the end, we are all King Lear”, it also works hard to examine how much that’s actually true in a piece about how generations interact, conflict, and hand over their social prominence to those who come behind them.

The play is a dizzying variety of performance techniques set on a bare stage with an easel, a table, a sound system and – crucially – three armchairs whose occupants are shown in closeup on huge portrait-like screens on the back wall. Four performers worked with their real fathers – three of whom are onstage, one of whom is persistently cited and quoted – to come up with a collective statement about what a loving child owes aging parents, and what those parents have to give up in exchange for care at end of life, in five parts loosely based on King Lear‘s five acts.

That’s a difficult question, even after one father (a physicist) sets out to mathematically model a ‘Differential Equation of Parental Love’. What do parents give up to their children to earn their devotion? Money? Freedom? Dignity? The conversation (in German with sur-titles) is frank, revealing, and frequently very funny. Liechtenstein prints, long stories about childhood in Silesia, parental grooming, unwieldy book collections – all are bargaining chips in a staged recreation of living Lear handing out his inheritance.

All this is complicated by sections where (with headphones) cast members repeat their recorded voices from actual arguments and discussions during rehearsal. “I don’t get this Lear at all”, says one father. “I resent how you’re presenting me in this play” says another. “You demand a respect you never give” rebuts a child. The net effect is to show how we create narratives for our own lives – children the hard-done-by Cordelias, parents frightened Lears surrounded by the ‘serpents’ tooths’ of ungrateful children – and try to find the compassionate heart behind these easy roles.

There’s also charming choral singing, scenes from the translated King Lear (which still sounds great if you don’t speak German), a funeral oracle, and a wild ‘storm’ scene. The pace is quick, the actors superbly wry and thoughtful by turns, and the parents inject a wickedly ironic skepticism about all the high-brow artistic stuff going on around them which is familiar to any arts patron who’s brought (dragged?) their parents to see ‘culture’. Whether you identify with parents or with children more, I encourage you to see this rare, unique, and brilliantly well-done bit of theatre before its very limited run ends; it will, of course, be back “Never, never, never, never, never.”

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