Sonntag, 01. August 2021

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Theatrical Landscape of the Netherlands

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Theatrical Landscape of the Netherlands
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Without drama there is no cynism

by Simon van den Berg

If you want to get to know Dutch theatre, where would you start? You would probably have a natural inclination – especially if you are from a German speaking region – to ask about writers and plays. Texts, after all, trancend the fleeting nature of theatre, can easily be read and translated and in that way bridge cultures and eras. However, if you try that approach with Dutch theatre, you would find yourself stuck with a very limited supply and worse, miss most of what is characteristic and exciting about the contemporary Dutch theatre scene.

The Dutch have never been great playwrights. We have Vondel (17th century, classic drama) and Heijermans (early 20th century, social realism) who are both acknowledged as national treasures (albeit reluctantly – the Dutch tend not to dwell on their cultural past), but their plays are rarely performed. Most of the time we have picked up the best of French, German and English developments because of our international orientation. Racine, Schiller, Shakespeare, Euripides, Ibsen and Chekhov are far more popular than any Dutch playwright could ever be.

Collective improvisations and inspirations from outside
But that's only part of the story. The sixties and seventies saw a rapid modernisation of Dutch theatre, not only in style (towards a conceptual approach to staging and a more naturalistic and transparant acting style) but especially in organisation. After the Nederlandsche Comedie, the main company in the country, collapsed under its own institutional weight in 1970, countless small, experimental groups were formed.

Some, like the legendary Werkteater, made socially critical performances out of collective improvisations by the actors. Other artists, like Lodewijk de Boer and Frans Strijards, wrote and directed their own plays with their own small band of actors. And more and more groups started to draw inspiration from sources outside the theatre, like books and movies, not by writing an adapted script, but by making a theatrical translation directly to the stage.

Of course, during the eighties and nineties Dutch directors also made postmodern interpretations of classic plays. Johan Simons, Gerardjan Rijnders and Jan Joris Lamers played their part in laying the foundations for what the German theatre scholar Hans Thies Lehmann would later call the "postdramatic theatre" in his book of the same name.

Seperation between venues and companies
But that is a broader, pan-European movement. I believe that the three earlier trends – emancipation of the actor to become the (co-)author of the performance; theatre makers developing a strong DIY mentality; an open mind with regards to possible source material – are specifically Dutch (although the first two were matched by similar developments in our closest neighbour, Belgium) and have shaped the current form of Dutch theatre.