AMSTERDAM, Holland — Having never seen an “experimental theater” performance, my feelings leading up to the Orkater Theater's production of "Richard III" were a mixture of curiosity and doubt.
Why? This adaptation integrated the music of Tom Waits into Shakespeare’s script, sometimes using the modern lyrics in place of sections of the original text. And, as it turned out, that was to be the least shocking part of the performance.
Considered blasphemy by more conventional theater-lovers, such liberty-taking as inserting Tom Waits' music and lyrics into Shakespeare is a staple of Dutch theater. For my college drama class, the students attended this untraditional performance to better understand what makes Dutch theater so unique.
To use the term “Dutch experimental theater” would be a faux pas in the Netherlands: Dutch theater is experimental theater and there is a solid foundation for this.
For any performance to connect with its audience, one of the most critical elements is language. Shakespeare wrote all of his plays in his native English, which needs no translation for an American or English audience. And even though the majority of Holland's population speaks both Dutch and English, Dutch theatrical productions often change English language plays into Dutch to facilitate audience comprehension.
Because of this tradition of translation, it is impossible for a company to perform Shakespeare exactly as he wrote it. With the original text already compromised, Dutch theater began exploring other deviations within the theatrical medium — often to the extreme.
Theater-goers familiar with "Richard III" know it a murderous tale of a man’s vain struggle for power. Orkater’s production went to great lengths to show Richard’s true nature: a brute animal, despite his cleverness. They even went so far as to pantomime a rape between Richard and his wife, Lady Anne, that was not in the original text.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this vulgar scene shocked the American students in the audience. Never in the United States had any of us seen a performance that so closely depicted a violent sexual act.
What surprised us even more was our drama teacher’s comment that the scene was fairly prudish for Dutch theater — many productions would have gone much farther with the powers of suggestion, such as having the characters be naked and/or actually copulate on stage.
This production's discretion was criticized in a review written by journalist Vincent Kouters in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. Under the headline “Speelse Richard zonder dreiging,” ("Playful Richard without threat"), Kouters called for even more dirty, gruesome action than the beatings, murders and rape that Orkater provided. As my Emerson drama teacher said, Dutch audiences are hard to shock.
Despite its popularity, Dutch theater is in limbo. As a historically rare conservative government rises to power in the Netherlands and faces the global economic crisis, federal subsidies are being slashed. The arts community is set to sustain a 20 to 30 percent budget cut — roughly $1.2 billion. This is a huge blow to a sector that has always had liberal government support.
The impact of the diminution of Dutch theater would not just be a Dutch issue: This type of experimental theater is not seen anywhere else in the world. Other cultures, particularly American, are not at a point where audiences accept the kinds of extreme liberties that define Dutch theater. It just remains to be seen whether Dutch theater will be able to overcome the budget cuts and continue to push more conservative cultures to face their own discomforts and insecurities.