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cloaca

Warning: contains some spoilers.

Ten years after its original premiere, 'Cloaca' is touring Dutch theatres again. With younger actors - 30 rather than 40 somethings - it has a slightly more upbeat tone, less wistful and more comical. What hasn't changed is the relentless intensity of the play that sees four friends thoroughly demolishing the hollow core of their friendship in a two hour long Albee-esque démasqué. The four actors pull this off with verve.

After its success in 2002 Maria Goos' 'Cloaca' was made into a film and staged in theatres around the world, including a prestigious run at the Old Vic in London. It became a modern classic largely because of the recognizable issues that the four friends struggle with in their approaching middle age, and which they try to hide behind banter and jokes dating from their student days.

Cloaca - 1

Successful politician Joep (Sieger Sloot) has estranged himself from his family, blinded by his own ambition. The formerly successful lawyer Tom (Tygo Gernandt) has wrecked himself on drugs, leaving a neurotic shell of his former self. Theatre director Maarten (Thijs Römer) has wandered off into pretentious experimentalism, which his friends have loathed for years. And then there is Pieter (Guy Clemens), the gay art historian at whose Amsterdam apartment the play takes place. He is involved in what initially seems the least of their problems, having taken, or been gifted, a number of paintings from the municipal archives. But the fact that they are now worth a fortune raises the stakes.

The genius of the play is in the way Goos weaves these four storylines into a tapestry of disillusionment, and subtly connects them around an underlying theme of beauty and purity.

The play's title, 'Cloaca', the Latin word for sewer. refers to a catchword the four friends used in their student days. It also symbolizes the way all their youthful expectations and dreams have been sullied by life, and the mess they've made of things, to the point where they have to face with disgust the person they have become.

Have I turned into an awful man?
Yes.
Cloaca - 2

To heighten the contrast with the entangled mess of these friends' lives, the play contains two elements of inspiring beauty. One is Joep's daughter Laura. The film version highlighted the moment when, in Maarten's play, Laura's naked body is cleansed by water. A visually dazzling moment, and it made a great poster. Arguably, however, Laura's youthful purity has already been tarnished by the ugly fight between her parents and Maarten's lewdness.

The other symbol is more subtle, and all the more powerful because it remains invisible - Pieter's collection of paintings. It is the hinted-at story of the painter, Van Goppel, and how he labored in obscurity, driven by his passion. His work ended up discarded in the junkyards of ugliness that are the municipal art depots. There Pieter, with his talent for spotting beauty, found them.

If Laura is able to spark self-examination in Joep, Van Goppel's paintings have been able to inspire Pieter.

It's not about the layers of paint. That's not it. It was what it suggested. I loved that so much. A suggestion of... Well, finally... Finally being able to make an emotion tangible.

At first Pieter displayed the paintings proudly on the walls of his apartment - he even moved to a bigger apartment to have room for them. But as their value skyrocketed he had to insure the paintings, and eventually sell four of them to be able to keep the other four. In the end he had to put them in a safe, hidden from the world.

Thus the only element of uncorrupted beauty in the play are the four paintings locked in Pieter's safe. Only there can this mythical symbol of purity survive untouched by the cloaca of life. Ironically we never get to see them.

Now Pieter is forced to give up his paintings because his friends let him down. The safe will be opened, the paintings sold and the last remnant of the "flame" they all used to have will be lost. And this is what Pieter cannot live with. Appropriately the current rendition of 'Cloaca' includes a few extra scenes at the end to emphasize Pieter's final act and balance the lighter tone with a solemn final note.

Life is a sewer, Goos seems to say, but there is heroism in taking a stand to protect an ideal of purity, if only for a while.

'Cloaca' is currently touring, ending in Amsterdam in February 2013.

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