The Netherlands, home to a broad and varied theatre landscapeThe Netherlands is home to a remarkably broad and varied theatre landscape.
From modern repertory theatre for a general public to abstract physical theatre, from large theatre venues to small collectives, and from politically engaged stand-up philosophy to location-based visual theatre -- it’s all here! The artistic culture, in which innovation is valued highly, ensures a steady flow of new forms and artists, while the artistic quality remains very high.
The diversity found in the theatre world can be traced back to a number of very specific developments in the 1960s and 70s. The post-war theatre innovations launched by e.g. Beckett, Artaud, The Living Theatre, Grotowski and Peter Brook also resonated in the Netherlands; but here they happened to coincide with an implosion of the bourgeois theatre. Thanks to generous state support, a large number of smaller theatre companies emerged (such as Werkteater, Maatschappij Discordia, Mickery, Dogtroep, Johan Simons’s Hollandia, Dood Paard) that developed revolutionary forms of theatre acting and site-specific theatre, which in turn influenced the mainstream theatre from the 1990s on.
To describe today’s landscape I shall restrict the focus to five main current found in contemporary Dutch theatre:
- Toneelgroep Amsterdam
- Visual eclecticism
- A new generation of playwrights
- Connections to other societal domains
- Experiments in large scale theatre
Toneelgroep Amsterdam, under the direction of Ivo van Hove since 2001, is in a category of its own. The company leads the field both in the Netherlands and far beyond, and has an ensemble of actors that has been referred to, more than once, as the best in the world . In a country where especially the cultural fringe tends to flourish – chamber music, small and medium-sized theatre venues, festivals on location and independent-minded modern art museums – it is only since the last decade or so that Toneelgroep Amsterdam has truly embraced its role as a genuine institution.
This is mainly owing to director Ivo van Hove, who manages to combine an avant-garde sensibility with a keen sense of the spectacular. His motto is to produce ‘the most extreme, personal theatre, but for as big an audience as possible’. Van Hove has transformed TA into a modern repertory company that combines classic pieces by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Molière with new stage adaptations of films and novels.
In doing so, Van Hove remains focused on intimacy and immediacy, in contrast to the overwhelming monumentality that so often characterises large theatre productions in Europe. His quest usually finds expression in abstract, purely conceptual set designs (by Van Hove’s partner in work and life, Jan Versweyveld), an idiosyncratic approach to repertoire, and an acting style that concentrates on emotional vulnerability and openness towards the audience.
This has produced legendary performances. In Opening Night (2007), large venue theatre, small venue theatre and film were brilliantly combined to form a highly theatrical and yet intimate gesture. Roman Tragedies (2007) was a non-stop six-hour marathon in which three Shakespearean pieces -- Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra – were performed in a hyper-medial space, where the spectators could wander freely across the stage and throughout the hall, could have a bite to eat at the bar on stage and use one of several computers at the digital reading table. More recently Van Hove produced the philosophically explosive stage adaptation of The Fountainhead (2014), in which Ayn Rand’s ideological schemata were transformed into warm-blooded characters, embodied by leading actors Ramsey Nasr and Halina Reijn. With Kings of War (2015) he again produced a marathon of three Shakespearean pieces (Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III), exploring the theme of leadership.
There are nine major theatre companies in the Netherlands, neatly distributed across the country. Many of these groups seek to emulate Van Hove’s successful approach, although the size of their ensembles is limited. But various interesting experiments are taking shape in this respect, in the coming period.
Besides the nine major companies, the Netherlands is traditionally a country of small and medium-sized theatre venues and of site-specific theatre. The most prominent groups in this field are currently De Warme Winkel and Wunderbaum, both of whom make visual and physical performances, often structured along associative lines and full of unrestrained theatrical fantasy.
De Warme Winkel draws its inspiration from artists like Oscar Kokoschka, Rainer Maria Rilke and Daniil Charms; Wunderbaum tries to translate social utopian ideas into theatrical happenings. Both groups often work without a director, allowing their performances to take shape through improvisation. Both groups adhere to an explicit postmodern mentality, cleverly weaving together a great variety of styles to produce something resembling performance art.
The best of decades of Dutch theatre development culminates in these two groups. The straightforward acting style that directly addresses the audience, rather than putting on a show for a spectator audience to view from the outside, has its roots in the method of Werkteater and Onafhankelijk Toneel. Their approach to space derives to an important extent from site specific theatre as practiced by Johan Simons and Paul Koek at Hollandia. The eclectic approach and free combination of different styles are inspired by Gerardjan Rijnders.
The Amsterdamse Theaterschool’s physical theatre programme, which has had a major influence on Dutch theatre for decades, plays an important role in this history. The strong physicality and distinctive mentality of the performers that trained here are sought after by many companies. Accordingly, these performers pop up in a wide variety of places, ranging from repertory companies to youth theatre companies.
The poetic immersion theatre by Boukje Schweigman, the theatrical ‘horror vaudeville’ by Jakop Ahlbom, and the critical feminist performances by Boogaerdt/VanderSchoot can all be linked directly to this school. A rising star in this domain is Davy Pieters, who produced a number of very alienating yet very precise performances, in which she connects a David Lynch-like aesthetics to caustic media criticism.
The confrontational installation art works by Dries Verhoeven tread the dividing line between theatre and visual arts. In Ceci n’est pas he exhibits a succession of uncomfortable scenes in a small glass cabinet on the city streets, one a day for one whole week: a nude transgender, a chained black man, a child soldier. In Wanna play? he uses the sex dating app Grindr to invite people to perform intimate acts in a container placed on a city square: no sex, but shaving a beard, eating soup, or playing a game of chess.
Text often plays a subordinate role in Dutch theatre. Many directors write their own texts, or they adapt books or films for the stage. Text is treated somewhat like the set: it is produced for one particular production and is tossed out after the final show. If a playwright is involved in the production process, then his or her vision is almost always subordinate to that of the director or a collective of actors making the performance on the rehearsal floor. Playwrights barely build up an oeuvre, and revivals of Dutch-language pieces are rare.
There are signs of change in recent years, however, with a new and more assertive generation of playwrights emerging. These writers emphatically present themselves as playwrights, rather than as theatre makers, and their goal is for theatre productions to be based on their work, rather than on the director’s wishes and ideas. In short, they are operating more like their British and German counterparts.
Maria Goos and Lot Vekemans are among the pioneers in this development. Goos came to attention as the author of a number of high-quality and well received television series. She is now the only playwright with enough of a reputation to draw sell-out crowds to her well-made plays in which the latter-day Dutch man and woman are picked apart with precision, such as Cloaca and De Hulp (The Help).
Vekemans was much more successful in Germany than in the Netherlands with her pieces Gif (Poison) and Zus van (Sister of). There she was recognised as a playwright with all due authority, and her resulting assertiveness inspired younger colleagues like Jibbe Willems, Rik van den Bos, Nathan Vecht and Hannah van Wieringen. These playwrights enter into long-term partnerships with a theatre company and develop their craft by translating and/or adapting existing drama repertoire. It also gives them the opportunity to devote more time to developing their own pieces.
Toneelgroep Amsterdam will be launching a talent development project for playwrights in the coming time. Perhaps this will result in truly new Dutch repertoire.
It is an obstinate romantic cliché: art as an autonomous societal domain, where free-spirited artists devote all their time and effort to highly personal artistic expression. Yet since the early years of the new millennium, theatre everywhere is showing a renewed interest in social issues. This interest first came to expression in the explicitly socially engaged plays by Eric de Vroedt (with his ten-part theatre series Mightysociety), Sadettin Kırmızıyüz (who also made a series, but then on his family members), Johan Simons, Marjolijn van Heemstra and many others. Since a few years we are seeing various artists deliberately applying their skills and talents to connect their work to various societal domains.
A pioneer in this regard is Adelheid Roosen and Zina company, which created performances on female sexuality in the Islam, formed a jury composed of residents of underprivileged neighbourhoods with no previous experience of visiting theatre, and which is concerned in various ways to create a dialogue between different population groups. Her research culminated in Wijksafari (Urban Safari; 2012): a large-scale location theatre project in which visitors/participants journey through an unfamiliar city district, visit people’s homes, race through the streets seated on the back of scooters, and sit down with the locals to eat. It was a successful combination of social welfare work, amateur theatre and great art.
Other artists are exploring ways that their work could have an impact on societal domains such as education or care, as Lotte van den Berg does in Building Conversations (2013), or they collaborate with journalists to do research, as Caspar Vanderputte did with the online newspaper De Correspondent regarding the refugee crisis, for his Fit to Fly (2016).
EXPERIMENTS IN LARGE-SCALE THEATRE
Dutch theatre is small-scale at heart. That’s because of the centuries-old and, for outsiders, often confusing distinction between theatre companies and theatre venues. The Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam and Toneelgroep Amsterdam are two different organisations, although the latter is the main player in the former. At present we are seeing the first experiments with a form that resembles the German ‘Schauspielhaus’. In Rotterdam and in The Hague, the company and the venue have merged to form a single organisation, on a scale previously unknown in the Netherlands. It is hoped that these theatre houses, to be called Theater Rotterdam (where Johan Simons will play an important role) and Het Nationale Theater, will manage to perform a more varied range of tasks and to keep productions on the repertoire for longer periods.
A trend towards larger scale work is also apparent in the commercial domain. The musical Soldaat van Oranje – a patriotic tale set during the Second World War, after the film by Paul Verhoeven – has been a huge draw for several years, thanks in part to its spectacular revolving seating and an actual airplane as part of the set. It is now the most performed theatre show ever in the Netherlands. For Anne, a new theatre adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary, a new theatre hall was built, with a revolving set (by the same team employed for Soldaat van Oranje) and a life-size replica of the Annexe. The concept of revolving sets and seating, as developed by the producers, is now being marketed worldwide.
Both shows were directed by Theu Boermans, whose career mirrors Dutch theatre. He started out staging obscure German plays in a squatted swimming pool in Amsterdam with his group De Trust, then moved on to larger venues with contemporary and highly popular versions of Chekhov and Shakespeare, and completed his career by taking the achievements and attitude of the small venue to the very biggest stage.
Written by: Simon van den Berg