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In the greatest spectacle, ultimately the smallest detail touches your heart (which is why The Head and The Load had to be the royal opening of the Holland Festival).

Some stories are too big to tell. Too big, but no less important or true for that. Like the story of the millions of Africans who died in World War I in the service of the warring factions there: Britain, France, Italy and Germany. No one knew that last story. At least, nobody I knew knew about it, and neither did I myself. The 2019 Holland Festival opened with it now.

It was called The Head and the Load, and Willem and Maxima plus a host of distinguished guests watched it happen. The venue was Theater Amsterdam, that building erected especially for Anne Frank, The Musical in the capital's western port area. Unusable, usually, because you have a stage fifty metres wide at your disposal there. And that's Very. Very. Big. For William Kentridge, it turned out to be just big enough.

Three carriers per soldier

William Kentridge had that story to tell. That story about those at least two million Africans sacrificed in that part of the war that made World War I a real world war: sub-Saharan Africa. There, the Allied powers did their best to deprive Germany of its colonies. They succeeded. Literally on the backs of millions of Africans. Or should we say 'heads', because Africans were used as carriers. Three per soldier, ten per officer. Those porters did not fight, but carried things. From booklets and handkerchiefs to an entire ship, which the armed forces were keen to get from the Indian Ocean to a lake in central Cameroon. Just because they could.

This story of the epitome of colonial abuse has always been hushed up. Partly because the abusers didn't think it was important. Because, yes, Africans were black, so hardly human. It is thanks to South African artist William Kentridge that we now know. We owe it to the Holland Festival that it became part of the royal opening. In that huge theatre in the western port area.

Highlight of total theatre

Everything about this project is great. Not just the theatre, but the group of actors, designers and musicians, supported by technical staff. They needed the full fifty metres of the stage when deflecting. Then you soon come to a hundred personnel. What they brought was impressive above all else. Music with a constantly changing mix of African and Western sounds, which largely meant to be unintelligible rather clearly conveyed the inability to communicate. Absolutely impressive - and a highlight of total theatre - were the shadow plays on the gigantic back wall. A great parade of silhouettes, bearers with a world on their heads, and, finally, the naming of those one or two names. Because all those anonymous bearers had a name.

In those final closing seconds, when the last actor on stage starts his list, but after two names the light dies, you realise how impossible it is to really tell that story of all those people. They are forgotten and that forgetting is the burden that lies on the shoulders of the oppressors.

So is it bad that it took all the way to the last few minutes for the performance to really sink in with me? Not really. Maybe all that spectacle before it was just what was needed to make me ripe for that last dying away name. Because in the end, any great suffering only really arrives in the smallest object that carries meaning. Be it a teddy bear after a bombing, or a single, whispered, name of a complete stranger.

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The Head and The Load, opening Holland Festival 2019, seen on 29 May 2019 at Theater Amsterdam. Still there on 30 and 31 May. Information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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