February 07

10x Brandhaarden Festival

In recent years, the unsuspecting theatre lover in major cities such as Munich, Hamburg or Berlin might find a note on a dark theatre. “No performances, we are in Amsterdam”; The director or company had accepted the request to be in the spotlight for the Dutch public for a week as a 'hot spot' of interesting theatre material. This resulted in an exodus of technicians with trucks full of sets, actors and artistic staff.

This annual caravan originated after 2010, when the opening of the Rabozaal significantly expanded the possibilities of the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. It would be great to become an interesting partner for international companies and producers as well. A theatre event of allure should put the theatre on the map. Hello Europe, come perform with us! But how do you do that?

By Hans Smit


The appointment of director Johan Simons in 2010 as intendant at the Münchener Kammerspiele came at the right time. With him, the lines were short since he was allowed to programme a weekend twice before as artistic director of Zuidelijk Toneel and later NTGent, also under the title “Brandhaarden”. But this edition should be XXL, with flames that can be seen far abroad for a week, and with two halls optimally programmed. Simons agreed, calendars were circled for the third week of March 2012. A logistics machine was set in motion, and at its peak almost 150 employees from Munich were walking through the corridors of the Stadsschouwburg, good for a packed program of nine performances and numerous talk shows. Johan Simons presented his own directorials (Winterreise, Elfriede Jelinek and a Sara Kane trilogy), and gave plenty of room to other makers. For example, the Amsterdam audience would once again see dogs on stage (Ruf der Wildernis, directed by Alvis Hermanis) and had the opportunity to experience a foreign directing by Ivo van Hove; Ludwig II to Visconti, with a phenomenal Jeroen Willems. Brandhaarden 2012 was a huge success; two weeks before the start, most performances were already sold out and additional bookings were made where possible. That gave everyone a taste for more. Why leave it at this one time?


Yet a year later it was not another Brandhaard (Hot Spot) but rather a Brandstichter (Arsonist) who was on the bill, the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. The idea is that by zooming in on a theatre and an interesting maker who works for several ensembles, you lay less of a claim on an entire theatre. And so that year Hermanis' own ensemble from Riga (with The Sound of Silence), the Münchener Kammerspiele (Wassa, with Katja Herbers and Elsie de Brauw) and the Schaubühne (Sommergäste) from Berlin visited the Leidseplein, the latter with a decor of 24 metres wide, actually four metres too big for the Rabozaal, but with some finishing touches it fit in the end, just.


Technically, the Brandhaarden edition of 2014 was also a challenge, as the Volksbühne from Berlin took centre stage, a theatre that has a playing surface with a built-in turntable, which is also frequently used. Amsterdam has nothing like that. Building such a facility is a labour-intensive operation for the theatre technicians. Expensive, so preferably avoided. When visiting a show to see if it could be booked, Brandhaarden programmer René van der Pluijm was regularly heard to sigh: “Oh God, they have a turntable again!”. That year also brought a hot air balloon to the Rabozaal, for a dance duet with star actor Martin Wuttke in Glanz und Elend der Kurtisanen directed by Rene Pollesch, now the artistic director in Berlin.


Browsing through the Brandhaarden programme booklets, another name stands out: Raphaël Pichon, now much sought-after Bach specialist hors catégorie, could still be approached in 2015 by Brandstichter Katie Mitchell to select her fourteen cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach for the extremely sober but wonderful performance Trauernacht in the empty decor of the Great Hall. In slow motion, four singers moved around a table like family members in mourning. Mitchell was then still relatively unknown in the Netherlands, but she was already a pioneer in the use of film and film techniques in the theatre. The forbidden zone, a production by Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, forces the eye to the huge movie screen. Mitchell was also ahead of her time in other ways: in her case, Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days does not disappear in the sand, but under a rising sea level, and the actors in Atmen generate their own energy on exercise bikes. The programmers at Brandhaarden had their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Also in 2016.


That year, a female artistic director made her appearance. With her appointment three years earlier, Karin Beier had made a breach in the male stronghold of German theatre by taking charge of Germany's largest city theatre, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, and by providing space for more female directors, such as Katie Mitchell. Beier showed her social commitment to Brandhaarden with her direction of the smashing theatre solo by Edgar Selge Unterwerfung (after Houellebecq) and by Schiff der Träume about African refugees. The female power was partly interpreted by the contribution of director Karin Henkel (Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman).


Brandhaarden was once also intended to strengthen the international programming of Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam/ITA, you could be forgiven for almost forgetting it with all those memorable performances. That it works was shown in 2017, with Nachlass, an installation by Arsonist Rimini Protokoll, the theatre collective from Berlin, on the Westergasfabriek site. It was the first co-production with Théâtre du Vidy in Lausanne. Spectators wandered through ten or fifteen rooms that confronted them with the theme of legacy.


Often, it is makers who can use a nudge that are central to Brandhaarden. The 2018 edition was an odd one out; Peter Brook is long past that stage, if anything, he would need to be slowed down. The Living Legend energetically introduced us to his Bouffes du Nord in Paris and the young makers there, such as Pascal Rambert (Actrice), but in the fringe programming, especially, looked back with pleasure on his rich career as a theatre innovator. We were actually all invited to his 90th birthday. And we hung on his every word


The programme around Brandstichter Milo Rau was actually already complete when his hair-raising performance La Reprise premiered at the Avignon Festival in July 2018. That should not be missing in spring 2019, Ivo van Hove and René van der Pluijm immediately agreed. The “re-enactment” of the murder of Ihsane Jarfi in Liège was given a place in the programme and, in combination with Lamb of God, Five Easy Pieces and Lenin, among others, showed the power of Brandhaarden's formula: insight into the methodology of a maker.


We ran out of theatres. Well, no, but the theme that year was spread more widely than one theatre. Miles wide; theatre and dance from Southern Europe, with the highlights being Sopro by Tiago Rodriguez from Portugal, with prompter Cristina Vidal on stage, and Gran Bolero by the Spanish choreographer Jesús Rubio Gamo. A broad programme that arose from the need to interpret the theme of Brandhaarden more widely. For example, why not zoom in on one actor in different plays, or multiple plays by one author?


Voila. Edouard Louis had to wait a year for it, but is now really experiencing his edition of Brandhaarden. With himself as an actor as well as an author, collaborating with the Swiss dramatist in Belgian service Milo Rau and looking at Dutch, Norwegian and German versions of his own work.

With such a broad international outlook, Brandhaarden can continue for years to come.