the old vic
"Club Cloaca" Origin de Volkskrant (Dutch newspaper), 26-08-2004, Page K04, Interview. Translated by the author. (Dutch original)
The most successful group of friends in Dutch theatre

Club Cloaca

They are the hit of Dutch theatre, the Cloaca-club. Pierre Bokma, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Maria Goos, Peter Blok and Willem van de Sande Bakhuyzen. Friends since drama school, immortalized as a group in the play Cloaca. ‘This is about us.’

by Joost Ramaer

Willem van de Sande Bakhuyzen (46) hurries hastily as always into restaurant 11 above Stedelijk Museum CS , and walks – ‘God, am I first?’ – straight on to the adjacent room to see what the photographer is up to. A little later Maria Goos (48) and Peter Blok (44) come strolling in, taking their time, enjoying the spectacular view over Amsterdam.

Pierre Bokma (48) and Gijs Scholten van Aschat (44) keep the others waiting. Blok grabs his cellphone. ‘We are just getting out of the cab’, they tell him. ‘Yeah, but where?’, Blok wants to know. ‘At the Binnenhof or something?’ Oh no: there they come breezing in, with the flair of habitual late-comers.

When they are all settled around the table, there erupts a feast of recognition and affirmation. ‘Great idea this!’, Bokma calls out. ‘We almost never see each other – much too busy.’ Goos tells about Elton John’s aids-gala she attended with Blok. Long before the London opening of her play Cloaca the couple gets catapulted into the jetset of the British capital. ‘Sting was there’, says Goos. She’s beaming.

Van de Sande Bakhuyzen has just returned from France, where he shot a dance movie. The editing of the family film Lepel is almost finished. Now he must choose – dilemma, dilemma – between a promising British offer and Leef! , based on a script by Goos, of which the financing will not be finalized till the end of September. ‘I cannot wait that long.’

Blok recorded a role for the Dutch version of Shrek II. ‘Have you seen it?’, Bokma asks the others. And to Blok: ‘I did! Very well done, pal.’ In early June Bokma handed over the Albert van Dalsum-ring, sign of honour for the best Dutch theatre actor, to Scholten.

Prizes, prize-directions, fame on tv and the stage: the five at the table by the window are positively swimming around in a collection of drama-laurels without par in Holland. A group of friends they are too, since drama school in Maastricht , the class of 1984. But no, they should not be called a club, the Cloaca-club, Goos feels. ‘The world does not work that way.


We all got where we are now under our own steam.’ But they are a club. Pleidooi , Oud Geld : they became famous because of what they did together. And their probably greatest success, Cloaca, ís about them.

What brought them so far, so close together? And what is the result? Brilliant entertainment, of more than that? The recorder is switched on and Pierre Bokma bows theatrically over to the microphone. ‘I think your work is fán-tás-tic’, he says to Van de Sande. Scholten joins in: ‘What you did in Pipo en de P-P-Parelridder with Daan Schúúrmans , Willem – I thought I was watching Al Pacino.’

The entrance of the writer, director and the three actors in restaurant 11, and the comedy evolving after that, have an unintentionally word-perfect run. More than twenty years ago they got to know each other at the Maastricht academy of dramatic arts, and formed an alliance whose patterns have never changed in their essence.

‘Maastricht’, with its old-fashioned emphasis on technique and craftsmanship, was a cosy island then, far away from harsh Amsterdam, the cradle of Aktie Tomaat and the revolution in theatre . But that offered absolutely no guarantee for a close bond. Actor Porgy Franssen, who often works with Blok and Scholten van Aschat, graduated a few years before them. ‘My class stuck together like loose grains of sand’, he tells with some disgust. ‘Many have never or hardly made it on the stage, and have not played for years.’

At that time a Cloaca Club seemed just as unlikely. Peter Blok and Maria Goos: calm, serious and from sober backgrounds. ‘At drama school I didn’t feel as if I was part of a social group’, says Goos, ‘I was an observer from the outside.’ First and foremost they found each other, a relationship which has lasted until today, despite all the usual crises. Their relationship is as enduring as their tendency to tell others how to behave. ‘Us? Moralistic?’, says Blok. ‘Oh yes, no doubt about it.’ That, and the solidity of their union, laid the foundation for Goos’ reputation as ‘mother’ of the group.

Willem van de Sande: a former member of an elite student’s society, who had a hard time of it in Maastricht, and afterwards. He wanted to learn the actors’ craft first in order to become a director, but had to leave the course after one-and-a-half years. ‘The teachers had doubts about my talent. That was a severe blow to me.’

Gijs Scholten van Aschat: a well-brought up lad from a banker’s family, who arrived to audition for the Amsterdam academy of dramatic arts wearing a hockey scarf, and was amazed when they rejected him. This incident didn’t faze him at all, as became apparent in Maastricht.


If Scholten van Aschat stood out there for his shameless bravura, the uncontested star in this respect was someone truly at odds with the prevailing Zeitgeist: Pierre Bokma. The product of an unsettled youth, constantly bundled between orphanages and foster families, fresh from a stint as reservist with the Cavalry, decked out in the then highly unfashionable suit and tie. ‘He was enormously extrovert’, remembers co-student Carine Crutzen . ‘He was always imitating people in the cantine. Everyone was in love with him.’

After a year and a half Bokma was told that he might as well go, as he’d got as much as he could out of the course. He understood this to mean that he’d reached his limits and had to leave. ‘I had a big mouth and I was stubborn. They didn’t like that, not then anyway.’ He demanded the right to finish the course, and was given it. ‘That was a lucky break for me. Otherwise I’d have just fallen short of really getting a grip on the profession.’

The initial impetus which brought this disparate group together was, as is so often the case, a shared enemy. The old-fashioned, overstated play-acting, which was passé even then. ‘That tone!’, says Jan Willem Jurg, who also studied with them. ‘With those long arcs: “Eu-geee-nio!” God, how we hated it.’ Though they loved to send it up. ‘We would satirize the classics with Willem van de Sande as Josine van Dalsum, and me as Sigrid Koetse .’

The second impetus was their position in a sort of theatrical limbo. Not only the theatrical old guard but also the new heroes were on the way out. Groups such as Baal and Werkteater had turned the theatre world upside down in the seventies with a totally new acting style. But when the newly graduated Blok and Scholten presented themselves to these groups the doors banged shut.

Partly from necessity, partly out of inexperience, and unfettered by the baggage of stylistic polarization which had taken place during the seventies, each took his own path. Bokma seemed to fall into big rôles with no effort. He caused a sensation with his part in the dark Night is the Mother of Day by Lars Norén in 1985. ‘That piece had real impact, just like Cloaca now but at a much more fundamental level. People sat in the foyer afterwards in total despair.’

Scholten chose to go to the Haagse Comedie . This was not a politically correct group according to contemporary thinking, but he didn’t care. ‘Gijs knows no shame’, says Ronald Klamer, the leader of Het Toneel Speelt (HTS) who produced Cloaca. ‘The man has no brakes.’ Scholten wanted to make the distance, to learn from old hands like Lou Landré.

Blok and Goos chose the smaller-scale studio theatre company Centrum, in Amsterdam. He as an actor, she working with groups of secondary school students. Goos made performances


there by interviewing young teen-agers in order to get to know their world. These kinds of talks still form the basis of her drama-work today.

But a bed of roses it wasn’t – not even for Bokma. ‘Apart from Night I did Masquerade by Lermontov, a flop, and As You Like It by Shakespeare, which was only so-so.’ Goos got the chance to do a production in a big auditorium after only two years at Centrum. ‘A total failure.’ Blok had a professional crisis. ‘I only saw what was not good in my acting. The pleasure to perform had gone.’ Van de Sande had the worst trip of all: stand-up comedy, a trial period, a direction here and there. ‘For years I did about three guest directions per year, always as a freelancer. Never any sort of break-through, which wore me down.’

In all this time they saw each other mainly after work, in café De Smoeshaan for example – after Maastricht they all went to live in Amsterdam. Blok and Scholten only performed together on stage for the first time in 1995, and with Bokma only last season, in Cloaca. It was television which forged them into a group, when in 1990 Hugo Heinen asked Goos to co-write the drama series Pleidooi.

‘Mother’ Maria lived up to her reputation: ‘I wanted to present that law firm as a club, and so it needed to be played by a club.’ She rolled out her old chums from Maastricht in front of the camera. Van de Sande, who had gone over to tv with Goede Tijden Slechte Tijden , joined up in the second season.

The success of Pleidooi led to Oud Geld, the series about the banker’s family Bussink – and to the first split in the group of friends. The AVRO and producers IdtV very much wanted to continue with this nationally famous team. But this time Van de Sande was in control of the casting, and he had other ideas. ‘I wanted the best actor for each particular rôle.’ Some of the outcasts from Pleidooi dealt with their loss, but others were deeply wounded. Something snapped between the Goos-group and their former co-student Yvonne van den Hurk, who had had a prominent rôle in Pleidooi.

Carine Crutzen: ‘It all seemed so weird. For example Gijs got a part just like that, but I had to do a screen test. I said to Willem: “You know me, you know what I’m worth”.’ She did the test under protest, and was chosen. From the bigger circle of Maastricht-friends a smaller group had finally emerged. From within that group new and exciting projects came into being – Familie, Cloaca – , and the members also provided the leading actors. Decisions as to who could join in also came from them. A new elite had emerged at the top of Dutch theatre.

What binds and distinguishes this pack of leaders is an insatiable appetite for better acting, broadening repertoire, learning new techniques. Still at drama school Pierre Bokma played for Werkteater an alien who came to earth for the first time in his life. Stark naked. ‘A mark of innocence, kind of.’ Before the show began he would join the people queuing for tickets, totally bare. ‘Only during the last five performances I got, in a flash, some sort of deeper


understanding. That to act you’re watching is quite different from real watching. I was a bit too adept at dazzling people. A show-off.’

Bokma’s capacity for self-analysis comes as a surprise for an outsider. He, the eternal vagabond without a clear address, even without e-mail, just equipped with a cell phone? Often he cannot be reached, will fail appointments – except when there is a rehearsal. ‘Pierre is the conscience of a performance’, says Klamer of HTS. ‘He keeps on going: “Wait, I don’t like this, we should continue till it’s perfect”.’

The occasional clashes have a purifying effect. ‘When Willem directed the Cloaca-film, he told me: “I’m afraid you will act too much” ’, Bokma tells. ‘That is an old bone of contention between us. Willem is not shameless but strict. I got tó-tally fed up with it.’ Late one evening it came to an outburst, on the pavement before Café Cox . ‘Since then the air has been cleared. Hasn’t it, Willem?’ Van de Sande: ‘It never occurred to me that you took my remarks so seriously.’

Actors who are so successful for so long, often slip off into an automatic pilot described by Klamer as: ‘A handbag with a few attitudes, a prompter on the stage and then, let the show roll along.’ This approach the Cloaca-club has never allowed to happen. Six years ago Klamer asked Goos to write a play for him.

First she did Familie, and after that Cloaca. The latter play is based on conversations she’s been having with her boys for a long, long time. ‘It’s about us’, says Blok. ‘Maria saw us get children, pass forty.’ Cloaca partly turns around the politician Joep (Scholten) and the civil servant Pieter (Bokma). Goos wasn’t very familiar with the universe of politicians and civil servants, so she called upon her old Maastricht-friend Jan Willem Jurg for help.

Look for leads, pore over, research: the end result is never taken for granted. The group of friends excels in ‘natural stage intelligence’, thinks Klamer. ‘Peter is the leader more than anything else, the team player, Gijs and Pierre embody a kind of truth and ruthlessness: they will never stop, they dare to enter forbidden grounds. Till it becomes ugly and you will feel the pain with them.’ He remembers how Scholten and Blok some six years ago dusted off Design for Living, a comedy by Noël Coward over-acted till the bare threads showed through. ‘Without those eternal glasses of whisky and silk morning gowns. Put on stage stark and bare, without the usual high camp.’

Their ambition and voraciousness makes them into ‘exponents of a generation who share a mental attitude’, as Klamer describes it. The generation from after the ‘director’s theatre’, in which the artistical leader was the boss. Jaap Spijkers belongs to it, Ariane Schlüter, Mark Rietman, Betty Schuurman, Marisa van Eyle, Carine Crutzen . Reading and selecting plays together is to them far more important than being fully employed by a company. ‘There is a kinship in the air that seems to be ballooning’, says Crutzen. ‘To develop new projects with all those kindred souls – that’s the most beautiful thing there is.’


But there are darker sides to this inspiration by craftsmanship. Within the Cloaca-group, a certain male chauvinism dominates personal relationships, during work and outside it. Friendship? Oh certainly, says Peter Blok. ‘But if the others always had work and not me – then I don’t know if I would still like them so much.’

Luckily for Blok, Bokma and Scholten, they do have work, always, remarks Carine Crutzen. Actresses have to compete with each other, actors hardly have to. ‘Far more women than men graduate from drama school, and there are far fewer good female rôles to pass around.’

Rehearsals with the Cloaca-men are often a matter of survival. Crutzen loves working with them. ‘But I stay afloat mainly because they see me as one of the guys. Sometimes I get incredibly fed up with that.’ And the mixed feelings during the process are not exclusive to women. Porgy Franssen plays a lot with them at the company Orkater – preferably with Gijs or Pierre or Peter. ‘Because, if they are all together, they speak a language I do not understand. Then I fall silent, get a feeling of exclusion.’

This culture of self-confirmation (Goos: ‘Really? Do others find us arrogant? How unfortunate’) permeates their own productions too. Blok, Scholten and Van de Sande have been cooperating for years with Orkater ; at a later stage, Bokma joined them. This musical theatre company wanted to enrich itself with ‘real’ actors, the actors wanted to learn singing, writing their own plays, to develop their talents for comedy. In terms of craftmanship the cooperation is a success, as well as drawing in huge crowds. ‘With us they do their own thing, elsewhere they play rôles’, says Marc van Warmerdam, the business manager of Orkater. ‘It’s ideal for us.’

But the critics do not regard the outcome as very adventurous or innovative. The artistic pinnacle, according to Van Warmerdam, is Who killed Mary Rogers? – a show from 1996. Five years after that came The Prefab Four, inspired by the fictional tv-band The Monkees from the sixties, written by Scholten van Aschat. It was a resounding success. ‘In fact it is a play like Cloaca’, observes Van Warmerdam. ‘Made and played by, and about, men in their forties with kids. It all became a bit too predictable.’ Scholten is now working on a more serious play, The Shortest Century. ‘It is to be welcomed that, in working with us, they are now looking for new approaches.’

At the table by the window in restaurant 11, the conversation turns to Shakespeare at Home – an intriguing sideshow by Bokma and Scholten. Two actors on order, performing for one-and-a-half to two hours in the living room. Gijs: ‘We do have a program. First, we tell about the writer. Then, we perform fragments from The Rose Wars, Hamlet, Othello and the Sonnets. Great fun. We do it a few times each year.’
It is edifying work, Bokma thinks. ‘For the past twenty years, certainly, those people have been overfed with Diary of a Madman and A Shepherd’s Dog in the Bath … no, I’ve got it


wrong … ’ Blok: ‘An Idiot in the Bath.’ Bokma: ‘Come on now, what’s the real name of this thing!!!’ Scholten: ‘Diary of a Shepherd’s Dog .’

The company starts to guess at their fee for Shakespeare at Home. ‘It is fairly modest’, Scholten says soothingly. ‘Six-thousand for a trial run with a money-back guarantee?’, Van de Sande suggests. ‘The numbers should never be published!’, shouts Bokma. ‘Otherwise we will get into dééép trouble with Phiscal Philip!’

Agonies over high tax bills – most Dutch actors would welcome them. And the buck doesn’t stop there. Van de Sande directs tv-commercials, Scholten lends his voice to advertising on radio and plays a profitable leading rôle in a popular kids movie. Why? Gijs leaps out of his seat. ‘Listen to me, you: with that kind of work, I gain the financial freedom to work for six months continuously on The Shortest Century for Orkater.’

That’s exactly what Willem intended his commercials to be for, but it simply never worked out. ‘I have never been able to buy more freedom with that. I never sit still, I’m engulfed by other things. But I love to do commercials, and I learn from doing them.’ Scholten: ‘You’re in it for the money, that’s all there is to it.’ Van de Sande: ‘Man, yes, of course!’

The evening is nearing its end when Goos and Blok take their exit first. Van de Sande leaves a little later. Bokma and Scholten linger on, milking an inexhaustible supply of acts and jokes – true to a pattern that dates back to Maastricht.

Okay – one more little grappa. One final performance by Pierre Bokma. Doing drama is a challenge by itself, but doing comedy – ‘That’s really the hardest thing to do’, he knows since his late entry into the genre. ‘All players must be ex-àct-ly on the same wavelength. It fails or succeeds with split-second timing. Drama is like a rally, but comedy is Formula One. Do you know why Ralph Schumacher crashed during the Grand Prix of the USA?’ He takes a napkin and starts to draw. ‘This is the F1-circuit of Indianapolis. Here you have … ’ – scribble-scribble – ‘ … a kind of U-turn and after that comes … ’ – scribble-scribble-scribble – ‘ … a false straight with just the slightest curve, and there … ’ – SCRATCH –
‘ … Ralph rammed the wall at some 200 miles per hour. And do you know why? Because here in that U-turn … ’ – SCRATCH – ‘ … he missed his line by the tiniest possible degree.’
Triumphantly, Bokma looks up from his napkin. See? That’s comedy for you.

Illness Van de Sande

A few weeks after the interviews with the leading players in Cloaca Willem van de Sande Bakhuyzen, the group’s director, was found to suffer from a serious form of cancer. He is currently under treatment and keeps on working as long as he can. Soon the director will start shooting the new film Leef!, after a script by Maria Goos. Because of his illness Jean van de Velde will assist him as co-director.

© Joost Ramaer, 2004 de Volkskrant