Stage Door Review

Katwijk, NED: Soldaat van Oranje

Saturday, May 18, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

music by Tom Harriman, lyrics by Pamela Philips Oland, book by Edwin de Vries, directed by Theu Boermans

NEW Productions, TheaterHangaar, Katwijk, NED

October 30, 2010-booking to January 5, 2020

Erik: “Als wij niets doen? Wie dan?” (“If we do nothing? Who then?)

Soldaat van Oranje has the most spectacular staging of any musical I’ve ever seen. The musical is based on the autobiography of the same name by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (1917-2007), one the heroes of the Dutch Resistance in World War II, and covers the crucial years from 1939 to 1945. The musical directed by Theu Boermans is presented in a purpose-built theatre inside a renovated airplane hangar on the disused military airbase in Katwijk, a town 8 km west of the university town of Leiden, where much of action takes place, and 63 km south of Amsterdam. 

The theatre is unique in that the audience is placed on raked 1100-seat central circular platform that rotates to face the various sets situated around it. This permits a series fantastic scenes that simply are not possible in a conventional theatre. The musical has been so popular that it has been running continuously since it opened in October 2010 and has been seen by 2.8 million viewers. Don’t worry if your Dutch is a bit rusty. An English plot synopsis is available for free but is not really necessary since the story is told so clearly. But if you want to see the show in English you should know that a production of Soldier of Orange is set to open in autumn 2020 in a similar purpose-built theatre in London.

Edwin de Vries, writer of the excellent book, must have realized that a musical that charted only the rise of Hazelhoff from lowly university student to national hero would lack conflict necessary for drama. Instead, he has taken on the much more complex theme of how a tight-knit group of friends at university respond to the coming of World War II and to the German occupation of the Netherlands. When we first meet Erik (Theo Martijn Wever), he is involved in an ceremony to be initiated into the Minerva Club at the University of Leiden. Fred (Ruben Brinkman*), the head boy, acting like a military despot, walks on the backs of students and commands that Erik pour a bowl of soup over the head of another student. Erik refuses and so the bowl is poured over him and he is pelted with leftover food.

This scene immediately establishes not only Erik’s uncompromising character. More surprisingly it also reveals that hazing rituals to enter a club are not that different in nature from totalitarian ideals where the individual must submit to the irrational will of a leader and that such ideals are not foreign to people in non-totalitarian countries. 

As it turns out, Fred appreciates Erik’s having stood up to him and Erik realizes that Fred was only playing a role he had to play. The two become friends but De Vries has already demonstrated how differently ordinary students can behave in games during peacetime. We meet others of Erik’s friends, some from the Minerva Club, some from a student house where many of them live. The first major gathering of all of them is at a student dance that breaks up when a student rushes in to announce that Nazi Germany has invaded Poland. 

Over the next several scenes when the Netherlands is defeated and occupied, we discover how Erik’s group of friends has found very different ways of accommodating themselves to the new reality. Anton (Lars Mak) and his girlfriend Ada (Marle Martens) choose self-preservation and go over to the Nazis. Erik and three friends rush to join the Dutch army. Charlotte (Willemien Dijkstra), Ada’s best friend and the girl Erik loves, become part of the Resistance. Bram (Mathijs Pater), their Jewish friend, tries to stay out of sight. Paul (Danny Westerweel), Charlotte’s boyfriend, becomes a spy conveniently placed within a nest of Resistance fighters.

After it becomes too dangerous for Queen Wilhelmina (Henriëtte Tol) to remain in The Hague, she goes into exile in England. After the student house is raided and Erik and Bram are captured and tortured, Erik escapes to England. There he and two of his mates, including Fred, are recruited to serve the Netherlands by supplying the Resistance with arms and other necessities. Over the course of the show, Erik and his friends repeatedly encounter situations where they have to weigh friendship against ideology. There are no easy decisions and there are no happy endings. Erik, of course, manages to survive, but the show in no way minimizes the suffering that his survival costs him.

Soldaat van Oranje is attractive for a wide array of reasons. The fact that it is based on the true story of one of The Netherlands’ national heroes is one of them. The fact that it engages in the uneasy question of “What would you do under the circumstances?” is another. Besides all that, the story is cast as a musical, a form that has become wildly popular in The Netherlands, and American composer Tom Harriman has captured the national mood perfectly in an eminently tuneful score that favours reflective songs over rousing anthems. 

Beyond all this, the epic story of Erik’s rise with its many attendant subplots receives a production that is not only suitably epic in scope but extraordinarily innovative. The point of Theu Boermans’s production is to place the audience literally in the middle of Erik’s story and in the time when his story takes place. 

The circle where the audience is seated is completely surrounded by a ring where the action plays out. About 15 feet of this ring is exposed all around the audience and behind that border rise solid curved floor-to-ceiling walls that contain sliding doors that open onto Bernhard Hammer’s various sets behind them. Because we move along with the sliding door from set to set, the sets do not have to changed and therefore can be far more elaborate than would be possible in a conventional theatre. The set for the hall where the Minerva Club meets is two storeys high, is covered in coffered wooden walls and has its own dais used as a stage. We are given a cutaway view of the student house that shows two storeys of seven different rooms plus the stairwell that connects one part of the house to the other. Queen Wilhelmina’s palace is a cutaway view of three mirrored rooms – one an antechamber where people wait to meet the Queen, a main parlour where meetings take place and off that the Queen’s private boudoir. 

The most incredible set of all, one that draws gasps from the audience, is a view of the sea from a sandy beach with real sand into the distance and a cyclorama of the changing sky. A pier leads from a wooden boardwalk out over the water which arrives at the shore in waves. The most incredible use of this set – one that makes you ask “Did I really see that? – occurs when Erik and a group of friends try to escape in a small boat to England during a storm when it is raining real water. The boat capsizes near the end of the pier. The water is so deep that Erik dives in and rescues one of the friends from drowning. 

You could well think that nothing could possibly top that scene, but Boermans has something else in store which I will not describe. I will only say that it has to do with Wilhelmina’s return to The Netherlands after the war and leaves you utterly astonished.

As the show progresses Boermans repeatedly proves he is a master of depicting simultaneous action. One moving example occurs when Wilhelmina, in exile in London, sings of her longing for the war to end. The curtain wall then opens to reveal Charlotte in the student house who then joins Wilhelmina in singing the same song of longing.

In a more complex scene the curtain-walls part revealing not just the beach set but a two-storey glass ballroom adjacent to it. While a ball for Nazi officers is in full swing, we see Charlotte approaching the ballroom with the intention of entering it to gather information. Her plans are thwarted when she realizes that Anton and Ada, who are having an argument, are leaving the ballroom for the beach and could recognize her. At the same time, Erik and Victor are rowing a boat to land on shore with munitions. The encounter of these three groups ends in fights, gunshots and escapes just as might happen in a 1940s film.

Boermans makes us of the rotating audience platform for numerous travelling effects. Proscenium theatres in the 19th and 20th century had to rely on treadmills hidden in the stage floor to allow performers to run while on stage. The stage in the TheaterHangaar shows the audience 180º of the solid front walls and the circular stage apron in front of them. The first time the audience platform moves is simply to follow Erik as he walks in front of a typical Dutch streetscape of wall-to-wall narrow houses projected onto the front stage walls. The platform movement takes everyone by surprise and is used primarily to accustom the audience to its increased use throughout the show. 

The most exciting use of this travelling is when Erik and three friends are fired up to enlist in the army. Just outside our peripheral vision, they hop on their motorcycles, two on each, we first hear the roar, and then see the two motorcycles enter stage left. Once they move into position in front of us, the wheels actually rolling against the stage, the audience platform moves in synch with them as the streetscape rushes past. Clearly, the motorcycles are running at a speed just fast enough to allow them to remain upright, but the effect is amazing.

The obvious danger for a director who has such an advanced mechanical stage to play with is that he will allow the special effects it can produce to overwhelm the story. To his immense credit, Boermans never allows that to happen. There are just a couple scenes that are simply effects for effects’ sake, but otherwise Boermans makes sure that even the most extraordinary effects contribute to the storytelling. De Vries’s book also allows for frequent pauses in the action for verbal interaction among characters and for the mains songs. Unlike several recent Broadway musicals, Boermans does not use moving projections during songs seemingly aware that doing so attracts attention away from the singers. 

The show requires that the performers not only be fine singers but excellent actors. The cast I saw had no weak link. The most outstanding performance came from Theo Martijn Wever, one of three actors who rotate in the role of Erik, the character who really carries the whole show. Wever has a light but very expressive voice and sings the many songs assigned to Erik with sincerity and intensity but without any show of egotism or heroics. Erik is, after all, meant to be an ordinary, good man who happens to get caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Wever makes Erik’s reaction when told of the terrible fate of his comrades totally believable, first his lashing out at the messenger and then a complete breakdown into helpless sobbing. Luckily, the Dutch don’t value the stiff upper lip and Wever as Erik is allowed to depict the full devastation of the news.

Queen Wilhelmina receives second billing and her role is shared by two performers. I saw Henriëtte Tol, who portrayed the Queen as a tough, rather brusque older woman who does not suffer fools gladly. The Queen is enraged the first time she is offered tea while in England, wondering how such niceties can go on when people are dying. Yet, Tol shows how Wilhelmina’s anger lessens in the course of the song as she accommodates herself to one the inevitable ironies of life during wartime. 

The role of Charlotte is second only to that of Erik in the breadth of emotional range it demands moving from flirtation and vivacity before the war to fear and bravery during the war to utter degradation after she is captured and tortured. The way Willemien Dijkstra portrays Charlotte’s attempt to cling to life by recalling happy memories of the past is heart-breaking. 

Bram, the one known Jew in Erik’s circle of friends, is characterized as a dancer. It is therefore appropriate that Bram should express thoughts about his life through dance in the moments he has before he is executed. Mathijs Pater performs Sarah Miles’s choreography with such feeling and precision that the conflict between anger and resignation in Bram is almost palpable. 

Lars Mak and Marle Martens play the two students-turned-Nazis quite differently. While Mak emphasizes that joining the enemy is a way for the weak Anton to enjoy the feeling of power, Martens always conveys the sense that Ada knows she joined the enemy simply to save herself but still has qualms about her decision. For this reason we feel pity for her when, after the war is over, citizens humiliate her for having been a collaborator.

While the unique stage of Soldaat van Oranje permits numerous spectacular scenes, Boermans intersperses these scenes with archive photos and newsreels corresponding to the years that the musical covers. This practice grounds the show in reality and, in using the full 180º of the curtain-walls, means that the audience cannot turn away from the horrific scenes that some of the images depict.

Soldaat van Oranje in its present form is an extraordinary show. Whether it requires such a highly specialized production to succeed is a difficult question, but I suspect the story and music are strong enough so that the work would still be effective even without all the amazing spectacle. In a time when the far right has experienced a resurgence all over the globe, the question “What would you do?” that the show asks, has only become more relevant. It’s unusual to find a musical that is theatrically thrilling, musically sensitive and thought-provoking all at once. But that’s exactly what Soldaat van Oranje is and what makes it a show that should not be missed.

Christopher Hoile

*As of August 24, 2019, the cast will be: Alex van Bergen/Theo Martijn Wever (Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema), Willemien Dijkstra (Charlotte), Henriëtte Tol/Wivineke van Gronigen/Debbie Korper (Koningin Wilhelmina), Jelle de Jong (Fred), Thijs Miedema (Anton), Ludo van der Winkel (Chris), Eli ter Hart (Bram), Ruben Kuppens (Paul), Johnny Barendsen (Victor), Lisse Knaapen (Ada), Cathalijne de Sonnaville (Hofdame Tessa), Raymond Paardekooper/Genio de Groot (Van t’ Sant), Nelleke Juipers (Hofdame Angela) .

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Scene at the beach; scene at the Minerva Club, Leiden; Bram (Sjoerd Spruijt) and the firing squad; Erik (Alex van Bergen) and Victor (Johnny Barendsen), © 2014 Joris van Bennekom; Theo Martijn Wever as Erik, © 2017 Joris van Bennekom. 

For tickets, visit www.soldaatvanoranje.nl.