Illustrative image direction torpedoing raw monologue

In the intriguing, wordless beginning of The underground, the new performance by NITE (the collaboration between Noord Nederlands Toneel, Club Guy & Roni, Asko|Schönberg and Slagwerk Den Haag), the main character (Sanne den Hartogh) meets his doppelganger (Bram de Laere). The two men face each other, silently, in mirror image – their movements are exactly in sync. In an elusive clown act, they enter into a duel, which is rendered harmless by the childishly playful De Laere.

It is a wonderful way of giving shape to the ‘doubled consciousness’ that is central to Rik van den Bos’s theater text. The author based himself on Notes from the Underground, Dostoevki’s dark novella about a man who has completely turned away from society, and who surrenders to sadism and nihilism out of resentment towards rationality, meritocracy and orderliness. The stage adaptation has a much lighter tone than the original, but retains the enmity towards a society full of appearances and certainty. In a stirring song Den Hartogh sings about non-conformity and self-sabotage: ‘where are those real people / who are still in the dark / who don’t fit into a format / sometimes also go to shit.’

Predictable rhythm

In that one song, all elements of the multidisciplinary ensemble come together as seamlessly as a collective cry against imposed collectivity. However, the further the performance progresses, the more uninteresting Guy Weizman’s choreography and visual direction become. The performance gets bogged down in a predictable rhythm in which each piece of text is commented on as literally as possible by the ensemble: as the text becomes more anecdotal, the dancers re-enact the scenes in restaurants and dance clubs; when a feeling of despair and loneliness is central, a choreography follows in which that emotion is depicted. Dancer Tatiana Matveeva, in particular, is the victim of illustrative image direction: instead of being able to offer counter-color to the one-sided image that the narrator presents of his love interest Lisa, her interpretation is also limited to the archetype of the unattainable woman.

Read also the review of one of NITE .’s previous performances

Moreover, Weizman’s grotesque, exuberant directing style undermines the rawness of the monologue. The circus-like ensemble above all has a relativistic effect on the tirades and loneliness of the main character, which renders his pain and slumbering violence harmless. It culminates in a sentimental and unctuous conclusion in which Den Hartogh directly calls on the audience to embrace their dark side. In this way a nihilistic classic is reduced to a harmless crowd pleaser.

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