A tale of two cities

Last weekend I started doing some preliminary research for a weekend trip to Amsterdam I’m going next month. As the only Dutch person in the group, it seemed sensible that I would be the one making the travel arrangement and, more importantly, find some interesting theatre shows to see.

Despite my grievances with the Dutch arts sector, most of those related to the way the government elects to deal the field, I’m actually quite proud of the theatre produced in Holland. There’s a number of excellent, big companies, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Despite the limited financial support individual theatre makers receive these days, there still is a significant group of them who continue to explore the boundaries of theatre and performing arts. I’ve always considered the high quality of children’s theatre to be one of the best features of the Dutch theatre landscape: companies like Artemis and Maas produce intelligent and innovative shows that don’t talk down to kids. And all around the country theatre festivals with varying themes and scopes take place every year.

Naturally, I was looking forward to showing off some of the best my country has to offer to my friends. But in all my enthusiasm, I’d completely forgotten about one of the other distinctive features of Dutch theatre: summer closure. Most theatres outside of the big cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam are closed in July and August, and in these cities about half remain open. This was always a major annoyance to me before I moved to London. For one, it meant that seeing a show over summer usually involved travelling halfway around the country. And since the theatre I worked at closed as well, my bank account was usually pretty pleased when September rolled back around. In the overabundance that’s London theatre scene however, I had completely forgotten about this phenomenon. Still, with about half of the theatres open, I figured I would have quite a lot to choose from anyway.

This, however, turned out not to be the case. After all, I would be travelling with English speaking people, so I’d need to find shows that were either surtitled, English spoken or mainly physical. Despite Amsterdam being a very international city with a large number of expats, there’s surprisingly little on offer in the ways of English-language or surtitled theatre. Pretty much the only theatre that does surtitling is the Amsterdam City Theatre, which is home to Toneelgroep Amsterdam. And English-spoken theatre is mostly confined to the stand-up comedy genre, and tends to be more American than Dutch in nature.

Eventually I did find one show that would be suitable for everyone: a new play about Anne Frank that comes with iPads with subtitles (?) in a staggering nine languages. A very Dutch theme, sure, but at the same time the show is clearly geared towards tourists. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s not really the ‘authentic’ theatre experience I was hoping I could give my friends. But sometimes you have to make do with what’s on offer.

This is what I like so much about theatre here in London: it’s accessible. In two months’ time I’ll still be able to go to the theatre as much as I like without having to travel to the other side of the country. Of course, I’ll do that anyway to go to Edinburgh, but I could just as easily stay in London and still get my theatre fix. Since the vast majority of shows are in English, I can see pretty much anything that takes my fancy. Yes, I realise that this says more about the Dutch education system than about English theatre, but it’s still pretty great. Student and ‘under 26’ concessions make sure that I can go to the theatre two or three times a week without having to live in a cardboard box under the Westway. And best of all, there’s so much to choose from.

All in all, London is pretty amazing. Despite the grouching that I do at the tube, the tourists, the weather and Westfield, the awesomeness of the theatre more than makes up for all of the bad stuff. So London, I don’t say this often enough, but I really love you. You’re the best.