NITE on tour with Guy Weizman’s The Underground

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation – are people outsiders because nobody likes them or do people dislike them because they are outsiders? It’s a subject that has fascinated many writers – largely, I suppose, because many of them are outsiders themselves. In his brilliant, now almost forgotten, 1956 book The Outsider, Colin Wilson explores the phenomenon assessing the works and characters of Kafka to Camus and Earnest Hemingway to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The outsider has always been a source of fascination to the more balanced, well-integrated members of society to whom the company of others has always been fundamental to their existence.

The National Interdisciplinary Theater Ensemble (NITE) and international dance company, Club Guy & Roni together form the largest multi-faceted theatre house in the Netherlands. Their new piece The Underground takes us on another journey into the world of the loner.

Freely adapted from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground by Rik Van Den Bos we learn of the fears and frustrations of a nameless character as he rails against most aspects of human existence. His raison d’être is moaning and complaining, finding fault with everything and everyone, including himself. He, as they used to say, stares at his navel concerned only about his own problems, not thinking or caring about others. Every aspect of his life is a failure. Not a lot of laughs, you may think. Well no, there weren’t many but the story is handled with a fairly light touch with lots to distract from the doom and gloom. In some ways it reminded me of the 1961 British musical Stop the World, I Want to Get Off whose central character, also a clown, tells of his dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The fact that the central character is portrayed as a clown is not insignificant. Although a figure of fun, there is always the underlying sadness and loneliness. In fact, the “tears of a clown” has become a bit of a cliché. But Guy Weizman’s The Underground takes it a step further, presenting the piece as almost circus. The large, elaborate set consists of a series of platforms and frames enabling the performers to jump and swing around in acrobatic fashion and there is a brilliant slack rope speciality act from Bram de Laere that would grace the ring of any circus you care to mention, though his main function is as a sort of alter-ego to the main character.

The excellent seven-piece band recruited from Slagwerk Den Haag is always on stage and constitutes an important element of the proceedings. More Fellini than Barnum and Bailey, each with a long pony-tail, they are dressed in ankle length red and white hooped figure-hugging tube-like costumes which are grotesquely padded. In a funny way they put me in mind of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.

The main character, nicely played by Sanne den Hartogh, is quite aware that his behaviour alienates others but seems powerless or unwilling to change. I think it is the lot of the outsider to think they are the only normal one. His tirades at times bordered on the monotonous, tedious almost, but there were a few funny lines – I liked the idea that all self-help books should be burned.

All-in-all NITE’s The Underground is an excellent and original piece of theatre with some memorable moments, a couple of which involved balloons. There was one sequence with a series of errant red balloons and the finale involving large white balloons attached to and floating above all those on stage was a moment of sheer beauty. The white spheres had a sort of ethereal quality, perhaps representing a longed for, though unlikely, moment of joy and optimism.   Michael Hasted at Theater Rotterdam on 29th February 2024

The tour of NITE’s The Underground continues until 17th May