Wunderbaum Ruthlessly Stirs the World’s Soul and Their Own
The members of Rotterdam theatre collective Wunderbaum don’t really play characters on stage. On the contrary, they present the many ambivalent roles of their own lives. In other words, the boundary between their own lives and acting is intentionally kept thin. In doing so, Wunderbaum depict situations familiar to their audience, often sufficiently so to make their viewers cringe.
A hunger for social comfort, entertainment and (mass) tourism, a yearning for success, self-development and children, a need for social engagement – but without the consequences. For the Western, white, well-educated individual, every show by Wunderbaum serves as a mirror in unflattering light. When people go to see Wunderbaum, they see themselves (not even caricatured) and hear their own voices. The humour – and fortunately a certain clemency for everyone’s imperfections – keeps the mood cheerful, on the whole.
The five actors of Wunderbaum started the company twenty years ago, immediately after graduating from Maastricht’s theatre academy. The group is composed of three women and two men, four of them Dutch and one Belgian, along with set designer Maarten van Otterdijk, who is also a member of the core collective. They began rehearsals a couple of days before 11 September 2001, and their first play, The Magical Brabant Mystery Tour (2001), contained everything they would work on over the following twenty years: their scripts arise from improvisations and draw on current affairs. Their first productions still involved brass band accompaniments in community centres; later they would take a more international direction. As Generation-Xers, born to baby-boomers, they rejected the stuffy traditional theatre repertoire. Their motivation started out, as it does now, from a contemporary political and social concern, taking themes such as technological progress, globalisation and rising nationalism as their inspiration.
Schaapjes op het droge © Fred Debrock
Wunderbaum meticulously dress every subject inside-out, illuminating it from different perspectives. The result is something like a collage of slices of life. Until you lose all reliable perspective as a viewer – that’s what they want. They are now in their forties, with around forty shows to their collective profile. Along the way they have adapted contemporary prose for the stage. For instance they made Superleuk, maar voortaan zonder mij (A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again, 2016) based on the book by American author David Foster Wallace (about his journalistic experiences on a cruise in the Caribbean), and Schaapjes op het droge (Home and dry, 2019) based on Anke Stelling’s successful novel, (about the concept that despite the idealistic notions of childhood, social class does play a role in life). The collective also regularly turn to Annelies Verbeke, a Flemish author of the same generation, to write a text for them: Rail Gourmet (2010), Flow My Tears (2012), Daar gaan we weer (White Male Privilege) (Here we go again (White Male Privilege), 2018).
Beertourist Ⓒ Jan-Dirk van der Burg
In a style that makes it look as if they are making everything up on the spot, the group confront the cosmopolitan middle class that we are, with our complacent, not entirely ethically responsible manner of living, and with the consequences of our technological, ideological and consumerist choices. We might call such an attitude ‘cognitive dissonance’, striving for one (politically correct) aim, while failing to avoid less responsible actions. Visiting culturally eminent cities, for instance, while staying on a polluting cruise ship, as in Superleuk, maar voortaan zonder mij. For the production, Wunderbaum stayed on board for two weeks, even performing a show there (which was not greatly appreciated)! Or travelling to the Black Sea as a supporter of Manchester United to spend the time there on cheap booze and sex, all the while spouting unabashed commentary on the level of civilisation of the place, as in the play Beertourist (Beer tourist, 2008).
The image Wunderbaum sketches of today’s European society is not attractive. It is always (mildly) comical and well developed. They pack humour and tragedy into one and the same scene. In Helpdesk (2015), Wine Dierickx plays an empathic and extremely professional assistant. Looking for a bit on the side during a business trip? The right words to score at an official dinner? A reminder to take your medication? Caren’s Company will take care of it. In the theatre (or through your headphones on the associated recent podcast) you realise that the friendly voice is slipping into desperate digital loneliness. Dierickx received a Theo d’Or, the Dutch award for the best female lead of a theatre season.
Helpdesk ⓒ Fred Debrock
Dysfunctional families or disruptive society?
The empathic observation of the company alternates with a sometimes painfully sharp, cynical detachment. In Daar gaan we weer (White Male Privilege) the editors of a trendy cultural magazine argue about an unintentionally racist cover on one of their issues. Racism, sexism and class differences: it turns into a tangle of statements and arguments in which they dig themselves deeper and deeper. The viewers sit around the stage and watch, as if observing a ‘zoo humain’. Questions are raised, no answers are offered. Perhaps they are not needed, as often images say enough to get the viewer thinking. In a short film for Schaapjes op het droge (Home and dry, 2019) you see how the smooth Matijs Jansen, in his forties, gets out of his electric Porsche to express his admiration to actress Wine Dierickx: ‘Fabulous. Respect. Two out-of-work artists with four children. How do you do it?’ To which Dierickx, with her pregnant belly and a couple of little ones in the wagon, hitches up her tights and thanks him in confusion for the compliment.
The scene speaks volumes about the distance between the two. Did she pick the wrong path in life? The hysterical outburst that follows later must feel cutting to all those toiling mothers in the room. That is the point Wunderbaum likes to emphasise: the problem lies not so much with the dysfunctional families as with a disruptive society. You can do your utmost best, personally, to remain faithful to your ideals, but a neoliberal society is deaf to all that and spits you out as a ‘loser’.
Work Harder (2020) confronts the question of our work ethic. How far should it go? How far should actors go to earn their living – or even more important, as it turns out – to achieve a career? ‘I love my job that much, I would do anything for it!’ whispers one, hidden away amongst the audience. If life is part of a system you can never escape, then no therapy session can help to counter burnout, and the emergency exit seems terminally barred. Working harder is the only thing you can do. A grim prospect.
Work Harder Fred Debrock
Nowadays Wunderbaum perform far beyond their home in Rotterdam. The theatre collective has put on shows at the Munich Kammerspiele and at the Theater der Welt festival in Germany. At Theaterhaus Jena they were given artistic control and since Marleen Scholten, one of the founding members, moved to Milan, the group has been linked to the art centre Mare Culturale Urbano. The premiere of Scholten’s monologue La Codista has been postponed several times due to coronavirus, but in October 2019 the show was performed at that Festival Internazionale del Teatro in the Swiss town of Lugano. They also worked with Brazilian actors/makers on an online version: La codista_BR, which was streamed last December during the theatre festival Cena Contemporânea in Brazil.
April 2021 saw the premiere of The Clowns Convention, in which the classic dramatic figure of the clown strikes out against the populist spectre that haunts the world today. Can he rescue the final shred of humanity? Or if need be lay it to rest? The Clowns Convention is a new and entirely corona-proof performance concept, involving a film, a monologue and a clown concert. It’s the kind of facility that belongs in today’s theatre.
To Act or Not to Act
In the docufiction film, Stop Acting Now, the five members of the Wunderbaum theatre collective confess the extent to which they themselves struggle with all the societal needs and existential dilemmas, without offering any solution. They decide to stop acting and go and improve the world themselves. Each of them picks a point of conflict and actually tries to do something about it. Marleen Scholten organises a ‘tear bar’ to combat the compulsion for happiness, Maartje Remmers gets her teeth into the bureaucratic monster to help people in poverty, Walter Bart targets neoliberalism with ludicrous actions, Matijs Jansen makes a deal with a shop chain for local vegetable distribution. And Wine Dierickx? She brings a child into the world and in doing so fulfils her good deed. But bit by bit they soon discover their impotence. As activists they don’t get much further than they did as actors.
Without preconceived ideas, as a theatre critic I went along with their story and their noble aims. For half a documentary I thought it over, first approving, then questioning, only to realise eventually that Wunderbaum had been playing a game with me all along – or better put, that they had faked their documentary. It felt rather like a betrayal of my own well-intentioned soul (and by association an attack on my own cognitive dissonance). But it immediately and impeccably illustrated everyone’s desire to do good – but not for too long.
Let’s keep Wunderbaum on stage: if they raise the right questions, we onlookers will come up with the answers ourselves.