Johan Simons

© Ben van Duin

Johan Simons was born in 1946 in Holland. He began training as a dancer in Rotterdam at the age of 14 and studied acting at the Maastricht Theatre Academy. He joined the Haagsche Comedie as an actor in 1976, and it was there that he staged his first production. In 1979, he was one of the cofounders of Wespetheater, an actors’ collective that toured the provinces of northern Holland in the summer, performing in tents and presenting plays on regional and historical subjects that were created through a process of improvisation. The company aimed for an expressive, physical style of acting inspired by the Commedia dell´arte. In 1982, he founded his own theatre company, Het Regiotheater. Its working methods and acting style were similar to those used by Wespetheater, but the plays were no longer developed through improvisation, but written specially for the company by experienced authors. In 1985, Het Regiotheater merged with the similarly organised company Acht Oktober to form the Theatergroep Hollandia, which put on performances in disused factory halls, stables and country churches. Johan Simons cooperated closely with the percussionist and composer Paul Koek, who became the company’s deputy artistic director and with whom Simons directed many plays. In 2001, the group merged with Het Zuidelijk Toneel from Eindhoven to form ZT Hollandia. The company was honoured with numerous prizes and invited to take successful productions, such as “Voices” and “The Fall of the Gods”, to various international festivals. In 2000, Simons and Koek were presented with the European Prize for Theatrical Innovation in Taormina. Since then, Simons has been in demand as a guest director at German-language theatres, including the Schauspielhaus in Zurich, the Munich Kammerspiele and the Vienna International Festival. In 2004, he was voted Director of the Year in the “Theater heute” magazine critics’ survey (for his production of “Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome” at the Munich Kammerspiele). Since September 2005, Simons has been the artistic manager of the Publiekstheater in Ghent, which is now called NTGent. Apart from featuring the work of young theatre directors at his new base, Simons has plans for coproductions with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Volksbühne Berlin and the Opéra de Bastille in Paris. With the season 2010/2011 Simon took over the Munich Kammerspiele as theatre director
In 2014 he receives the Berliner Theatre Prize.
From the season 2015/2016 he will be director of the festival Ruhrtriennale. His successor at the Munich Kammerspiele is Matthias Lilienthal.

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Portrait

These days, Johan Simons is not just one of the most important and intriguing theatre directors in the Netherlands, but the whole of Europe as well. At the Hollandia theatre company, where he worked from 1985 on, he continued the course he had pursued earlier in his career, first with the Wespetheater and then with Het Regiotheater, which meant putting on theatre in the provinces – “for people who don’t usually go to the theatre.” Consequently, the group worked in the countryside, performing in disused factories, churches, chicken sheds, farmyards and a football stadium. Reality was incorporated directly into the theatre in a very concrete way. A car dump served as the setting for Aeschylus’s “Prometheus”. “If you don’t know where you come from, you’ll never know the world,” was Simons’s maxim from the beginning.

In 1988, he started to assemble a permanent group of actors that included Elsie de Brauw, Bert Luppes, Betty Schuurman and Jeroen Willems, with whom the director developed the typical Hollandia style: a powerful, physically sensuous narrative theatre with elements of improvisation, always taking its cue from the here and now and the personality of the actor, often making use of musique concrète and non-literary texts, such as speeches, articles and interviews. The percussionist Paul Koek, who codirected many plays with Simons and became the group’s deputy director in 1987, created musical compositions for these productions that had a genuine dramaturgical function, determining the tempo and rhythm of the performances. The group achieved cult status – not just among the rural population, but also among the educated middle classes, who travelled out from urban areas to see Hollandia wherever the group was performing.

During its early years, the focus of the company’s repertoire lay primarily on Greek tragedies, plays about rural themes and peasant dramas (including pieces by Georg Büchner, Frank Wedekind, Herbert Achternbusch and Franz Xaver Kroetz), but in the mid-1990s Simons turned increasingly to social and political subject matter centred around the human as a social being capable of action. The result of this reorientation was a whole cycle on the “Morality of Power”, the centrepiece of which was the production for which Hollandia is probably most famous: “The Fall of the Gods”, a free adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s film “The Damned”. Set during the National Socialist period, it tells the story of a clan of German industrialists based on the Krupp family.

As dark as it is perceptive, this production, which has been feted at numerous international festivals, is a meditation on opportunism, corruption, the craving for power, sexual desire and profit maximisation. A German stage version was welcomed as a guest production at the Salzburg Festival in 2001 and the RuhrTriennale in 2002, while a French version was performed at the Festival d´Avignon in 2004. As in Visconti’s film, there are references to “Macbeth”, “Oedipus Rex”, Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils”, Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” and Richard Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods”, as well as ironic shifts of perspective and critical analyses of social relations. Each of the Hollandia actors tackles several roles in the production: for example, the famous Jeroen Willems not only plays the old Baron von Essenbeck, but also his amoral grandson Martin and, of the middle generation, the ambitious manager Bruckmann: a bravura feat of acting.

Jeroen Willems had already demonstrated the virtuosity with which he is able to transform himself from one character into another in the one-man play “Voices”, which was first produced in 1997 and has since toured the world in several languages. In this piece based on texts by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Willems plays five leading representatives of capitalist power, including the former chairman of Shell International, Cor Herkströter, who speaks in original quotations from his own speeches. Hollandia also achieved international success with the one-man show “Quick Lime” (1999) about the Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe (played by Fedja van Huêt), the arsonist who set fire to the Reichstag Building in 1933.

In 2001, the Theatergroep Hollandia merged with the Zuidelijk Toneel from Eindhoven to form ZT Hollandia, which brought the company better working conditions, but also heavier obligations, such as extended tours in Holland. In 2002, audiences were able to see its production of Euripides’s “Bacchae” at the Vienna International Festival, in Athens and in the Ruhr district. Furthermore, since 2001 Simons has been a regular guest director at German-language theatres, frequently working on coproductions with the ZT Hollandia. He achieved an impressive success in 2003 with his intelligent staging of Heiner Müller’s “Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome” featuring the company of the Munich Kammerspiele, which was marked by a deliberate awkwardness on account of its rejection of all theatricality: this was an intellectual drama of thought that adopted the gestus of a parliamentary democracy to reflect on the causes of terror and violence. The stage set designed by Bert Neumann consisted of the stalls of a theatre where the actors sat like voyeurs gazing at themselves, but also like members of a parliament – and mirror images of the audience. The production did not represent Shakespeare’s orgies of violence on stage, but this made the language and the imaginative impact of the play all the more brutal. The staging was invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen in 2004.

Simons was represented at the Theatertreffen again a year later with his thoroughly benevolent stage adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s novel “The Elementary Particles, which concentrated on the love stories of the two brothers. The director sent five excellent actors (André Jung, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Sylvana Krappatsch, Yvonne Jansen and Chris Nietvelt) out onto a corrugated iron sheet placed over the front rows of the auditorium, where they entered the force field of his anti-ornamental theatre with its narrative style stripped of all redundancies. In November 2005, Frank Baumbauer took this celebrated staging from the Schauspielhaus Zurich to the Munich Kammerspiele, where Simons is a regular guest director.

Whether in his cool, epically simple staging of “The Ten Commandments” (based on the “The Decalogue 1 – 10” films and stories by Krysztof Kieslowski) or in his postcolonial textual exploration “Robinson Crusoe, the Woman and the Negro” (based on “Foe”, a novel by J. M. Coetzee, the South African Nobel Literature Laureate), Simons is always politically motivated in claiming the theatre as a locus for thought. He distrusts conventional dramaturgies, impressive performances and the effects of illusionistic, empathetic and visual theatre. He prefers to cultivate intellectual discourse on the stage. However, his minimalism is occasionally heavy going, and some of his work can be excessively dry or theory-laden.

Simons’s last work with ZT Hollandia was “Fort Europa”, a kaleidoscopic reckoning with the new century based on a text by Tom Lanoye that was premiered in 2005 during the Vienna International Festival in a busy concourse at the Südbahnhof, one of Vienna’s main railway stations. In September 2005, he moved to NTGent, the former Publiekstheater in Ghent, as its artistic manager. He made his debut there directing “Platform”, based on another novel by Houellebecq. With productions by young directors and a permanent core of eight actors – including Elsie de Brauw, Aus Greidanus Jr. and Betty Schuurman from the ZT Hollandia – Simons wants to build up a repertoire at Ghent, an unusual approach for the Flemish-speaking areas of Belgium. There are plans for coproductions with other theatres, such as the Volksbühne Berlin, and guest productions by directors like Frank Castorf, Ivo van Hove, Christoph Marthaler and Jossi Wieler, while Simons will continue to work as a guest director at other theatres at least once a season.

Christine Dössel

Translation by Martin Pearce

Inszenierungen - Eine Auswahl

  • After Siegfried Lenz "The German Lesson"
    2014, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • After Heinar Kipphardt "März" (i.e. "March")
    2014, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Anton Chekhov "Uncle Vanya"
    2013, Munich Kammerspiele
  • William Shakespeare "King Lear"
    2013, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Lot Vekemans "Judas"
    2012, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Elfriede Jelinek "Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall" (i.e. "The Street. The City. The Assault")
    2012, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Sarah Kane "Cleansed/Gier/4.48 Psychosis"
    2012, Munich Kammerspiele
  • After Federico Fellini (using parts of Eugene O'Neills play "The hairy Ape") "E la nave va"
    2011, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Elfriede Jelinek "Winter Journey"
    2011, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Lion Feuchtwanger "Success"
    2010, Kammerspiele Munich
  • After Joseph Roth "Hotel Savoy"
    2010, Kammerspiele Munich
  • Ödön von Horvath "Kasimir and Karoline"
    2009, Schauspiel Köln, Cologne
  • Nach Joseph Roth "Hiob"
    2008, Münchner Kammerspiele
  • Heinrich von Kleist "Prince Frederick of Homburg"
    2007, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Koen Tachelet (text) and Peter Vermeersch (music) after Calderón de la Barca “Life is a Dream”
    2006, RuhrTriennale
  • Giuseppe Verdi “Simon Boccanegra”
    2006, Opéra de Bastille, Paris
  • Pieter de Buysser after J. M. Coetzee “Robinson Crusoe, the Woman and the Negro”
    Premiere 2006, Munich Kammerspiele in coproduction with the NTGent and the Grand Théatre de la Ville de Luxembourg
  • Tom Lanoye “Fort Europa”
    2005, Vienna International Festival/RuhrTriennale in cooperation with ZT Hollandia
  • Koen Tachelet after Krysztof Kieslowski’s “Decalogue 1-10” stories and films “The Ten Commandments”
    2005, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Tom Blokdijk after Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky “The Gambler”
    2004, Volksbühne Berlin in coproduction with ZT Hollandia
  • Tom Blokdijk after Michel Houellebecq “The Elementary Particles”
    2004, Schauspielhaus Zurich, transferred to the Munich Kammerspiele in November 2005 (Awarded the 2004 Nestroy Prize, invitation to the 2005 Berliner Theatertreffen)
  • Peter Verhelst after Shakespeare “Richard III”
    2004, ZT Hollandia/NTGent/Stadsschouwburg (Eindhoven/Theaterformen 2004)
  • Heiner Müller “Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome – A Shakespeare Commentary”
    2003, Munich Kammerspiele, (Invitation to the 2004 Berliner Theatertreffen)
  • Paul Koek and Johan Simons after Ralf Rothmann “Sentimenti”
    2003, RuhrTriennale in cooperation with ZT Hollandia
  • Tom Blokdijk after Christian Diterich Grabbe “Hannibal”
    2002, Staatstheater Stuttgart in cooperation with ZT Hollandia
  • Tom Blokdijk after Michel Houellebecq “Bearable“
    2001, Schauspielhaus Zurich
  • Tom Blokdijk after Luchino Visconti “The Fall of the Gods”
    1999, ZT Hollandia/NTGent
  • Tom Blokdijk after Marinus van der Lubbe “Quick Lime”
    1999, ZT Hollandia
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini and Cor Herkströter “Voices”
    1997, ZT Hollandia/NTGent