Ons Wereldrijk

Walking into the small venue inside Theater Rotterdam on Thursday, 19 December, for the premiere of Ons Wereldrijk (Our Empire) by Hotel Modern and Arthur Sauer, the first association is that of an elaborate miniature filmset. It is like walking into a cross between Madurodam and Universal Studios.

There are miniature villages and jungles, a model of a palace and a ship, and hundreds of small puppets no more than eight centimetres tall. The three performers and puppeteers (Herman Helle, Arlène Hoornweg, Pauline Kalker) are standing at the ready. Seated to the left is composer Arthur Sauer who will accompany the action with live sound effects (which will involve lots of celery). The scenes are captured on camera and projected on a large screen at the back.

For more than twenty years  Hotel Modern has brought miniature worlds to life in the theatre. The worlds may be small; the themes Hotel Modern tackle are anything but. One of their biggest international hits was De Grote Oorlog (The Great War), first performed in 2001. Kamp (Camp) from 2005, which covers a day and a night in Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, will return to theatres in 2020. In Ons Wereldrijk (Our Empire) the exposition is given in Dutch, but it is easy to imagine it being performed abroad in English or with English subtitles.

Photo: Pauline Kalker

Ons Wereldrijk focuses on the fraught relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia. Most readers will know how the colonization of Indonesia by the Dutch – who gave it the moniker Dutch East Indies – ended: with the Indonesian National Revolution in 1949. But how did the ‘relationship’ start?

Ons Wereldrijk covers the period between 1600 and 1680. The VOC Dutch East India Company, a trading company, was at the height of its power. The Dutch were the top traders of the era. And they had set their sights on exotic spices like cloves, nutmeg and mace. Back then, cloves were worth even more than their weight in gold.

These precious spices abound in the archipelago. Which made the Dutch more than willing to help the Indonesians fight those pesky Portuguese traders, or help Sultan Amangkurat II vanquish his biggest competition. The Dutch merchants had only one condition: sign your name on the dotted line, promising that in future you will trade exclusively with them. If the inhabitants were unfortunate enough to break the agreement – the Dutch really loved their contracts – the Dutch retaliated with bloody and ruthless force.

Ons Wereldrijk doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths. We watch as, sanctioned by the Dutch, women are raped, babies are speared, people are beheaded, blood pouring from their now exposed arteries. Yet, miraculously, the performance never gets too heavy-handed.

Photo: Bas Czerwinski

It is a delicate balancing act. By using puppets to re-enact the atrocities and adding dashes of humour here and there, the creators manage to create some distance, which is even further enhanced by giving the figurines fantastical features. While the figurines representing the original inhabitants of Indonesia look most like humans, the faces of the Dutch resemble those of sheep. The Sultan has the head of a great hornbill.

The confidence with which the performers and technicians bring these worlds to live, the love and attention that has gone into the creation of the puppets and the models, is truly awe-inspiring. Ons Wereldrijk is not only a one of a kind experience, it is also labour of love.

Seen: December 19, 2019, Theater Rotterdam.

Our Empire

Concept, creation and performance: Herman Helle, Arlène Hoornweg, Pauline Kalker | musical composition and live sound track: Arthur Sauer | assistance sound track: Ruud van der Pluijm | voices sound track: Ida Ayu Maha Dewi, Tomy Herseta, Ruud Agerbeek, Jorn Heijdenrijk, Menno Vroon, Tomer Pawlicki, Maartje van der Brink, Laura Mentink | set building assistance: Marsha Agerbeek, Heleen Wiemer, Kirsten Hutschemakers, Simon Schrikker, Juliet Campfens, Mark Hosking, Joost ten Hagen | costumes: Roelie Westendorp, Caroline Hogendoorn | technicians: Edwin van Steenbergen, Bas Standaar, Ruud Lamers, André Goos, Jorn Kortooms | research with the help of: prof. dr. Henk Schulte Nordholt, Tristan Mostert MPhil, dr. Alicia Schrikker (Universiteit Leiden), Marjolein van Pagee MA, Irwan Ahmett, Bart Westenbroek, dr. Tom van den Berge, Simon Kemper, drs. Mark Loderichs a.o.