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Theatrical Landscape of the Netherlands

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.

But there is one more organisational factor to consider. In the Netherlands there has historically been a confusing seperation between venues and companies. Theatres (paid for by local municipalities) are programmed independently and theatre groups (subsidised by the national government) travel across the country and usually do not have their own venue. This causes an ongoing tension between the avantgarde (companies are subsidised for their artistic quality) and conservative forces (city councils do not care too much about art and just want their theatre to stay within budget).

A consequence of this tension is the rise of so called "free productions", semi-commercial (hence "free" from subsidy) performances of popular modern plays – for instance, by Yasmina Reza – or adaptations of well-known books or movies, with Dutch celebrities in starring roles. And because the theatres are independent and risk averse, these free productions with their greater audience security slowly oust the more serious theatre from the venues.

New plays are hardly ever staged
So what is the influence of all this on the use of texts in Dutch theatre? I think that the strong emphasis on movies and books as source material has filled the need for a modern stage repertoire. New plays by, for instance, Marius von Mayenburg or Falk Richter are hardly ever staged. Ivo van Hove, artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, now The Netherlands' main theatre company, stages either classic plays like Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies or "Mourning becomes Electra" by Eugene O'Neill or film adaptations, most recently "Cries and Whispers" by Ingmar Bergman and "Rocco and his brothers" by Visconti. Johan Simons, who now works in Belgium and who is one of the bright shining stars of the European theatre scene, adapted the Dekalog series from Krzysztof Kieślowski and "Double Indemnity" by Billy Wilder for the stage. Guy Cassiers made his magnum opus in Rotterdam adapting Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu" into a four-part stage cycle.

But the younger generation goes even further, by writing texts as disposable as their stage sets. Eric de Vroedt and Marijke Schermer are writer/directors, working in the many smaller venues, who make texts for one production and one production only. They want to write about current affairs like the Dutch participation in the war in Afghanistan, populism in politics and, inevitably, the problems associated with the integration of ethnic minorities. Their work has great urgency and is accessible, but (deliberately) lacks durability.

Others forgo words altogether
It should come as no surprise that thematically, the works of these writers show little faith in the power of language. They abstain from poetry but quote clichéd phrases from politicians, social workers or small-talk between strangers in a supermarket. Even their stories are more or less collages constructed of plot fragments from classic plays. De Vroedt's Mightysociety6, about a Dutch general going mad in Afghanistan, is about equal measures Apocalypse Now, Anthony and Cleopatra and Antigone, peppered with verbatim words of Dutch army men and bureaucrats, lifted from the media or policy reports.


But others in their generation forgo words altogether. Young theatre makers such as Lotte van den Berg, Jetse Batelaan, Boukje Schweigman and Dries Verhoeven are researching exciting, new forms of theatre. They work mostly outside theatres and developed their style at the popular summer festivals. These festivals have avoided the dichotomy between avant-garde and conservatism by programming high-art, site-specific theatre and more approachable fare, side by side, and with great success.

In many ways this generation of early thirty-somethings elaborates on the work of Hollandia (Johan Simons' group in the eighties and nineties) and the Dogtroep, the founding fathers of Dutch site specific theatre, but they add their own imaginative power and an exceptional intimacy.

Main theme is the act of viewing itself
Schweigman, a mime artist by education, makes deceptively simple movement theatre which turns out unexpectedly profound. Together with her regular designer Theun Mosk, she builds intimate spaces in which the performers and the audience are able to look for genuine encounters. Verhoeven, originally a set designer, makes architectural installation performances in which the spectator is subtly turned into a performer.

Van den Berg, the most radical director of her generation, constructed a closed box with one window for her performance "Gerucht" (2007) in which her audience could observe a busy square in the city. All these young theatre makers take the act of viewing itself as their main theme. The everyday nature of the little language they use is offset by the poetry of their images. In a restless time they are searching for means to achieve attention, concentration and postponing of judgement and interpretation. They subvert the cynicism of society by being consciously naive. They won't put up with a marginal place in the avant-garde, and have a fundamentally international outlook.

So maybe Dutch theatre doesn't really need plays to bridge the gap between different stage cultures. The performances by the current generation can do that all by themselves.

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