Theatre play Oeroeg in Leiden theatre


This video is the trailer of the Dutch language 1993 film Oeroeg. The international title of the film is Going home. It is (somewhat loosely) based on the 1948 novel Oeroeg by Hella S. Haasse (1918-2011). The book was translated into English in 2013 as The Black Lake.

It is about the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The main protagonist is a Dutch boy, born and bred in the mountains of the west of Java island in Indonesia. In the film he is called Johan; in the novel he is nameless. His father is a tea plantation manager.

The other main character, after whom the book was named, is Oeroeg. The name means ‘landslide’ in the Sundanese language of west Java. Oeroeg is an Indonesian boy, son of a plantation foreman. He is of the same age as, and the friend of, the Dutch boy.

Oeroeg was Hella Haase‘s first novel (after an earlier poetry book and a theatre play). She was born in Indonesia herself. Before she became an author, she studied to become an actress. Later, she wrote some texts for theaters.

So, it would be interesting to see what would happen to Oeroeg if it would change from a novel into a theatre play.

On 19 November 2015 was the première of Oeroeg, adapted as a theatre play by Madeleine Matzer, in the Leiden theatre. Quite some actors turned up in the audience of this première.

This 19 November 2015 video is the trailer of the theatre play.

This 19 November 2015 video is an interview with Leopold Witte. He is one of the two actors in the play; he plays the Dutch protagonist; nameless, like in the book. The other actor, Helge Stikker, plays Oeroeg and all minor characters. He also makes music on electric and acoustic guitars.

The show started with a film projection of an owl flying towards the spectators.

Later in the play, there was often a landslide (like in Oeroeg’s name) projected in the background.

Both the book and a play mention an ‘anteater’. Anteaters are South American, not Indonesian. Maybe Hella Haase confused them with pangolins, which do live in Indonesia. The book (not the play) also mentions a ‘houtduif’ (wood pigeon). A bird species of the Netherlands, not of Indonesia where other pigeon species live.

The ‘black lake’, a mountain lake after which the English translation of the book is named, plays an important role in the story. The young Dutch protagonist nearly drowns there, but survives. Oeroeg’s father drowns trying to save the Dutch boy; making that boy feel guilty and indebted to Oeroeg.

The main theme in the play is how colonialism, with its corollaries like economic inequality and racist prejudice, destroys friendships. The Dutch boy in the play, compared to many other Dutch people in the then Dutch East Indies, is not particularly prejudiced against Indonesians. He used to be better at speaking Sundanese than at speaking Dutch, and even later he still has a Sundanese accent in his Dutch. Yet he does not understand why his friend Oeroeg gradually becomes an anti-colonialist supporter of independence for Indonesia.

The end of the novel, and of the play, tells how the friendship eventually ends tragically during the Dutch war against newly independent Indonesia, 1945-1949. In the film, Dutch ‘Johan’ goes back to where he was born, as a Dutch colonial army soldier. In the book and in the play, the Dutchman also goes back to his site of birth, but as a civilian, not a soldier. Still, behind the stage, images of the bloody military conflict are projected. Close to where he used to play with Oeroeg when they were boys, the Dutchman meets an armed Indonesian pro-independence fighter; who says: ‘Go back, or I will shoot!’ Is that Indonesian fighter Oeroeg? Yes, says the film. In the book and the play, the Dutchman is not really sure whether the Indonesian is Oeroeg or not. He may be unable to recognize his former close friend. Emphasizing what was lost since his happy childhood memories.

A review of this play is here.

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