Hotel Modern play a serious game of dolls
Hotel Modern was founded in 1997 and the nucleus of three theatre makers collaborate with other artists, theatre actors and composers on a per-project basis. Arlène Hoornweg and Pauline Kalker are actresses – both graduated from the Arnhem Theatre School – and Herman Helle made his name as a visual artist and model maker. Hotel Modern has a unique place in Dutch theatre. Although other companies use scale models, animations and projections on a more or less regular basis, Hotel Modern is unique because it uses this medium, this ‘miniature city scenography’, to explore great, important, adult themes. As the group says: ‘We practice black humor, try to give shape to difficult subjects in a light and playful way.’
The Holocaust, for example, is just such a difficult, emotionally charged subject – so charged in fact, that the words ‘for example’ seem misplaced here. In the performance Kamp, Hotel Modern appear to be testing the boundaries of possibility in this type of theatre. It presents the audience with a day in the life – and, more often than not, death – of Auschwitz concentration camp. The group built the camp in miniature, ‘true-to-life’. As an audience member, one is immediately thrown into disarray on entering the theatre: those barracks, those watchtowers, as well as those train wagons and barbed wire fences are tucked away somewhere deep in the collective unconscious. Seeing it this way, displayed in three dimensions, is an exceedingly uncomfortable experience.
The three members of Hotel Modern start to crawl around the stage on all fours. They bring 8cm-tall puppets to life, tiny human figures made of wire, clay and black-and-white striped fabric. One, for example, attempts to escape and is gruesomely electrocuted in the barbed wire, and another succumbs to the heavy physical labor and is beaten excruciatingly slowly by a guard, until death inevitably comes. At other times, the camera tracks cardboard sheets covered with standing puppets. Hotel Modern made thousands of them. They disembark train carriages; they go to barracks, to gas chambers, to crematoria. There are no spoken lines, only sound effects and occasionally music. There is no acting: this is a serious game.
The reality of Auschwitz has been expressed a thousand times in feature films, documentaries and books, and almost always in a direct and confrontational way that leaves little room for the imagination. In Kamp, Hotel Modern allows each audience member to make his or her own ‘imagining’ of the reality. The makers do not show how Auschwitz was, rather the audience imagines how it could have been. For those observers of a sensitive disposition, the hour-long performance is one of internal discomfort and denial, albeit not continual, because the technology on display also pulls on one’s attention, as do the procedures the members of Hotel Modern carry out – the deft manipulations. Occasionally the latter dominates and the foundation of the performance is weakened. And afterwards there remains a sense of uncertainty: was it only the horrors of Auschwitz that one was touched by, or equally Hotel Modern’s ingenious wizardry that held us in thrall.
In Kamp, Hotel Modern employ similar techniques to those seen in The Great War – the production that put the group on the map. And not only in the Netherlands, because The Great War has now been performed throughout Europe and was recently put on again in Poland and northern France, the very area, that is, as it were, the ground on which the performance was built. And during the 2006-2007 season too, performances of The Great War will be alternated with those of Kamp. This will allow the audience to experience a three-dimensional animated portrayal of the two great wars of the last century.
There seems to be even less leeway between historical reality and theatrical illusion in The Great War than in Kamp. The parsley trees, the plant-spray rain and the bombardment of spluttering sparklers: the innocent nature of these ingredients contribute to a superior form of deceit and the audience is helplessly dragged into an breathtaking inferno.
The Great War has become a miniscule memorial – one distinguished by its simplicity – for the millions of soldiers who departed this life in the fire and the mire of the First World War. The same can be said of Kamp in relation of the millions of victims of the nazi regime.
Those who speak about Hotel Modern are apt to use words like ‘scale models’, ‘animations’ and ‘projections’. And it is true that these elements have pretty much become the group’s trademark. But it should not be forgotten that first and foremost Hotel Modern makes performances of enormous social and political significance. It is precisely the group’s ability to transcend technical ingenuity and individual anecdote that determines its exceptional position and its high-quality. Hotel Modern creates theater performances that stimulate the imagination in a very particular way, but additionally, and this virtue is equally important, the group repeatedly produces work that inspires reflection.
Excerpt of an article by Jos Nijhof, for the Flemish-Dutch cultural magazine Ons Erfdeel