Theatre in The Netherlands is at a crossroads
Theatre in The Netherlands is at a crossroads. After a number of flourishing decades, theatre makers, theatre managers and policy makers appear to be looking for new justification. in the debates, the discrepancy between artistic development and social relevance is intensified and last season the word crisis was regularly used in a discussion about box-office figures, subsidy and establishment reform. The fact is that the Dutch prefer to talk about money rather than art. Simon van den Berg
Although in the Dutch-speaking regions, Johan Simons (artistic leader of NT in Belgium, Dutch director in Flanders) and Ivo van Hove (artistic leader of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Flemish director in The Netherlands) are undeniably two internationally-acclaimed theatre makers, it is hard to deny that the artistic heyday of the eighties and nineties is definitely over. Still, the seeds of a new international élan of Dutch theatre have been sown. Now the question is whether they will get the opportunity to blossom. For a number of years, Dutch theatre held a top position in the European performing arts. Particularly from Germany, the modern Greek tragedies by writer and director Koos Terpstra, the radical interpretations of Jan Joris Lamers and his group Maatschappij Discordia, were watched with envy, as were the deconstructed staging performances by Gerardjan Rijnders, and the powerful and ritual location theatre by Hollandia. The book Postdramatisches Theater by the German theatre scholar Hans-Thies Lehman established once and for all the status of the Dutch School. Since the sixties a new form of theatre has been created in which the different elements of a performance –direction, acting and staging – no longer serve the text, but exist next to each other as independent elements. According to Lehman, Dutch theatre makers played a role in this that should not be underestimated. The admiration did not just concern the content, but also the system in which so much diversity was possible. The Netherlands was and is the country of the many lively, small and medium-sized theatres, where a great number of small groups have made experimental theatre; where the bigger institutions would rather play in a black box than on an elevated stage and where big organisations have tried to match the dynamism of the small ones. “Theatre is no longer a Mass Medium”, Lehman wrote in his introduction and The Netherlands appeared to accept the consequences first. Middle class theatre All this praise has its downside, of course. The public interest for modern theatre has never been substantial. Different from our neighbouring countries, The Netherlands never had a middle class for whom theatre-going was a ritual deed of intellectual edification. “Modern people dress in a modern way (…), and they all have a word processor and a video at home, but they do not seem to be willing to love modern theatre. (….). If only theatre became old fashioned again, they would be willing to come”, the in- fluential theatre critic Jacques Heijer, who died in the early nineties, already wrote in 1989, with an acute sense of irony. However, some theatre managers and other interested outsiders appeared to take that argument seriously. During the last ten years a new middle-class theatre has evolved as a counterpart to the artistic theatre. Unsubsidized producers were given more access to the theatres and were able to enlarge their audience greatly, with a smart mix of recent plays by French or American playwrights, adaptations of popular books and, in particular, by putting actors wellknown from film or television on stage. In addition groups were formed in the subsidized circuit who applied themselves to Dutch writers in an attempt to restore the literary roots of the theatre. The strange thing is that these crisis discussions were mainly held by managers of theatres and the groups playing there. The Netherlands have a unique system in which the big theatres in the towns on the one hand and the big theatre companies on the other hand are different organisations; the theatres schedule independently and the theatre companies travel around the country. As a consequence of these often difficult relations between the theatre companies, who are subsidized by the national government with artistic objectives, and the theatres, who primarily have to deal with local authorities demanding balanced budgets, the most relevant artistic developments of the last twenty years increasingly took place outside the theatres. Johan Simons and Hollandia It was in fact Johan Simons, now epitomizing Dutch theatre in Europe, who had been looking for audiences outside the theatre ever since the early eighties. His monumental and ritual style crystallized at Theatergroep Hollandia, the group he founded in 1985 together with fellow director and musician Paul Koek. Soon after, the group became well known and gained respect with their hyper-stylized playing style and the earthly and musical performances of classical tragedies such as Prometheus and Bacchantes in old factory workshops, a breaker’s yard or a lock. In the nineties, Simons is searching with Hollandia more and more for theatre as an all-in experience, in which the trip to the location, the meal in advance and sensory perceptions like image, scent, temperature, which do not play a role in a theatre, become part of the theatrical work of art. When the group wins the European prize New Theatrical Realities in 2000, its development already seems to have come to an end. Hollandia merges with a repertory group in Eindhoven and since 2001 Simons has mainly worked in theatres. With successful productions in Germany such as Anatomie Titus (2004) and Sentimenti and theatre adaptations of books by the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq like Tragbar (2001) and Elementarteilchen (2004) in Zurich, and Platform in Gent, his international star status has begun. Ivo van Hove’s passion for experiment The Belgian director Ivo van Hove does not make location theatre, but he does often use – in collaboration with his regular designer Jan Versweyveld – the theatre auditorium as raw material. He already did so with small theatre groups in Belgium, but since he became the artistic leader of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Hollands largest theatre company, in 2001 he has turned the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam inside out in completely new ways. In addition to a thematic preference for doomed loves and oppressive passions, he keeps experimenting with unusual audience positions and installation-like settings. For example, the audience was put on beds in Koppen (Faces, 1997), was allowed to walk freely amongst the actors in Splendid’s (1994) and for Perfect Wedding (2005) he transformed the auditorium and the stage of the theatre into one big stage floor. For the moment, the highlight in this development is Romeinse Tragedies (2007) (after the Roman Tragedies by Shakespeare), a continuous marathon of six hours, in which the audience could freely move between the stage and the auditorium, in which the action could be followed on countless television screens, so that the spectators in the background became silent participants in the political intrigues. Supported by an exceptionally good actors’ ensemble, van Hove has given the most important theatre company of The Netherlands a rejuvenated élan; but Van Hove also has started to work abroad on a regular basis. For the Dutch and the Flemish, Germany is always considered a big brother and van Hove made productions in Hamburg and Stuttgart. And, as one of the few theatre makers in The Netherlands, he has looked westwards: he has worked in New York twice and has won Obies (Off-Broadway prizes) for his Hedda Gabler (2004). He works, furthermore, in different disciplines, he directed the Ring des Nibelungen cycle in Brussels and is working on his first film. Artistic malaise But in spite of the excellence of these two theatre leaders and directors, the future is uncertain. Johan Simons left The Netherlands in 2005 to become the artistic leader of the NT Gent, and is moving to Munich in 2010, where he will become the manager of the prestigious Kammerspiele. The Flemish directors Guy Cassiers and Dirk Tanghe are leaving The Netherlands and Koos Terpstra has turned his back on the theatre completely to focus on cabaret and television. Is this the consequence of the increasing emphasis on reaching a wider audience by government and theatre managers? This is not entirely clear, but it is a fact that the present generation of artistic leaders has no clear successors. The talented forty-year-old theatre makers have almost all founded their own groups, like Dood Paard,‘t Barre Land and Mugmetdegoudentand. Their collective art relates badly to the management of the big theatre companies. Nevertheless the government has now devoted itself to turning as many as eight groups into large city companies, but the question remains whether these groups will gain any artistic power. In this way, a policy crisis is gradually leading to artistic malaise. Summer festivals Isn’t there a new generation of theatre artists who are battling against all this with fresh ideas? Yes there is, but also these young artists often prefer to work outside the theatre. Trendsetter was the internationally-acclaimed Dogtroep that has recently ceased to exist. They could be regarded as the founders of location theatre in The Netherlands. In the last few years, the summer festival circuit has turned out to be fertile soil for a new generation. The most exciting developments took place at the festivals where young theatre makers such as Lotte van de Berg, Jetse Batelaan, Boukje Schweigman and Dries Verhoeven were given the opportunity to investigate new forms of theatre. In a way, they elaborate on the all-in-experience theatre of Hollandia, but they add their imaginative power and an exceptional intimacy to it. Schweigman, who was trained as a mime artist, makes apparently uncomplicated movement theatre with an unexpected profoundness. Together with her regular designer Theun Mosk, she builds intimate spaces in which players and audience are able to look for genuine encounters. Verhoeven, originally a scenographer, makes architectural installation performances in which the spectator is made into a player in a subtle way. Van den Berg, the most radical director of her generation, constructed a closed box for her performance Gerucht (2007) in which her audience can observe a square in the city. All these young theatre makers in their thirties take the act of seeing itself as the main theme in their work. In a restless time they are looking for attention, concentration and are postponing interpretation and judging. Against the cynicism of society they place conscious naivety. Their performances are poetic, still, and they hardly use any language. They won’t put up with a marginal place in the avant-garde, and already have an international view. It isn’t difficult to imagine that they will be sweeping through Europe with their accessibility and their pragmatic outlook. Who knows, they might even be helped by the fact that The Netherlands, with its present obsession for box-office figures and top-down policies, has not much to offer them.Humus layerThe Netherlands, with its excellent education opportunities and special circuit of workshops for young artists, still has a fertile humus layer on which young talent can grow. But the difficult relation between renovation and support, between artists and audience mediators, and between ideal and reality, will control the theatre in the years to come. The Netherlands will remain the country – maybe even more than in the past – where the really interesting theatre happenings will take place outside the big theatres. The loss of young makers for The Netherlands might be a benefit for Europe.
Simon van den Berg is a theatre critic and founding editor of theatre website http://www.moose.nl