The hangar theater was filled to the brim, and a speaker voice had just welcomed us to the musical ‘Soldaat Van Oranje’, stressing that for safety reasons we should all remain seated, because we were in a theater designed as a rotating auditorium. Then, a lady started to walk down the aisle, and only after a little debate with a theater employee, who kindly but firmly asked her to return to her seat, the lady gave up.
Friendship and war
The light dimmed, and a street in Leiden with characteristic Dutch townhouses emerged on the scene. One opened, and we found ourselves in a hall at Leiden University in the late 1930s, where a number of new students were being exposed to humiliations by their older peers.
This turned out to be the beginning of a friendship between the five young men – the main characters of the musical. Not all five were freshmen, in fact one of them was the ringleader of the older students responsible for the humiliations. But, the ringleader afterwards apologized to Erik, who had been wounded, and the two of them, subsequently, developed a close friendship.
The five friends got very different roles and fates during WWII: One, a Jew, was taken by the Nazis, two others became Nazi supporters, and the last two (Erik and the ringleader) became resistance fighters. They worked out of London, where they were honored by Queen Wilhelmina, who was there in exile. Later during the war, Erik became an RAF pilot, and he was the only one of the five friends to survive the war. When the war ended, he returned to the Netherlands as Queen Wilhelmina’s adjutant.
A little background
Originally, Soldaat Van Oranje was the title of an autobiography from 1970, written by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (in the musical called Erik Lanshof). The book was made into a movie in 1977 and became a great success. In 2010, the musical was premiered in a flight hangar converted into a theater at the former airbase in Katwijk. After WWII, according to wikipedia, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema emigrated to the US, where he led a restless life as a writer. He died in Hawaii at the age of ninety. His ashes were transferred to the memorial ‘Voor hen die Vielen’ (for those who fell) on Schouwweg in Wassenaar, which happens to be 2km from where I live.
Sometimes, musicals that are based on a movie, struggle to live up to the cinematic (and perhaps literary) success. This time, I had not seen the movie nor read the book, and it may have been to my advantage. Musically, it was an unremarkable experience. The actors sang well, but I did not leave the theater with a catchy tune in my head. On the other hand, it was an impressive stage set. The audience (and actors) rotated from scenery to scenery, alternating between Leiden townhouses, Queen Wilhelmina’s headquarters in London, and the beach of Scheveningen. The latter was the most impressive: Real “sea” water washing over the beach and a realistic horizon with a burning city of Rotterdam. At one point, the actors even managed to row out from the beach, capsize, and swim back . At the end, the stage opened up to the airfield outside, and Queen Wilhelmina stepped out of a Dakota aircraft. My husband and I could feel the cold wind all the way up on the 8th row in the theater wing where we were seated.
The musical was in Dutch, and we had prepared ourselves beforehand by reading the story outline on Wikipedia. Our Dutch/English acquaintances had reassured us that we would be able to follow the plot, even with our deficient Dutch language skills. It went better than expected, we could easily follow the play, and we understood about half of what was said. Only a few times, our Dutch fellow audience burst into laughter while we exchanged glances in resignation. We especially enjoyed the London scenes, where the Dutch resistance heroes met with British soldiers, simply because the dialogue was in English.
The audience generally appeared subdued. We have previously been to ‘Dutch’ events, where everyone was festive and noisy. On this evening, the audience seemed muted, both when applauding and when talking in the foyer during the intermission. At first, we thought it had to do with age, but when we took a closer look, we realized there was a large age spread among the audience. Boredom was another unlikely explanation: Although the show has been on almost daily since 2010, there is, assumedly, a new audience every time. So, we concluded it had to be the somber theme that affected the audience’s behavior: The majority of Dutch people lost relatives or friends during WWII – a total of over 200,000 Dutch were killed. No wonder the Liberation Day, April 5th, is celebrated much more in the Netherlands than, for instance, in Denmark, where WWII casualties were less than 4000.
I can highly recommend to see the musical, also for people like myself with basic Dutch skills, especially if you happen to live in Leiden or The Hague area, where the story actually happened. It makes you think. And, in any case, it is great entertainment with amazing stage effects!
Caption: Photography was not allowed during the show, so above are a few shots from the foyer and hall during the intermission.