Successful premiere for ‘De Emigrant’ in WoodstockArticle by Tom Bijvoet
On September 28 ‘De Emigrant’, had its North American premiere at the Market Centre Theatre in Woodstock, Ontario, which was filled to capacity. After 33 sold-out performances in Friesland, the cast have come to Canada for nine shows in southern Ontario. The play is set partially in Friesland and partially in Ontario so it is fitting that the first performances outside of Friesland should take place here. Performed predominantly in Frisian, the play naturally is a draw for the large Frisian-Canadian population in the area. But it has been adapted for other audiences, by the use of a special projection method, that allows subtitles (or ‘supertitles’ really) to be projected above the actors’ heads. A lack of knowledge of the Frisian language should not be a reason to miss the play.
We join main character Sybolt de Haas as he packs his suitcase for his first trip back to the fatherland in fifty years and reminisces about his life. It is fifty years since he last saw Friesland where he left his dear mother and his sweetheart behind.
In Canada Sybolt found a wife, Nynke, whom he loved dearly and deeply, a land with less rules and regulations which allowed him to become the owner of a large dairy farm and a lifetime of ‘unwennigens’, homesickness. He never returned to the fatherland, because he was afraid he would not be able to come back to Canada. But he promised Nynke on her deathbed that he would go back. So now he’s packing, getting ready for… well, indeed, for what…? Sybolt does not know and neither does the audience at the start of what will turn out to be a wonderfully told story, full of twists, turns and cliffhangers.
Sybolt de Haas is played magnificently by Freark Smink, an actor who completely embodies the role. His large physique and his imposing presence in the small ever changing set draw the successful emigrant farmer to the minutest detail. Smink’s face, tone of voice and body language pull us in to Sybolt’s emotional retelling of his life. The prime passions of high joy, deep sorrow and great anger gush off the stage. But Smink convincingly portrays more subtle moods too, such as the disdain Sybolt feels for the incompetence as a farmer of his older brother (who got the family farm) and the quiet fun he has when he good-naturedly mocks the host of his B&B about the dependence of the modern Dutch on government hand-outs. And yes, he is funny too, with sharp observations about life in all its facets and well delivered one-liners.
Smink is joined on stage by Theo Smedes, who artfully plays a number of supporting characters. An interesting little side-story has Smedes playing a newspaper reporter, the grandson of Turkish immigrants to Friesland, interviewing Sybolt. They find that they have a lot in common in the way they both straddle two different cultures.
As Sybolt’s sojourn in the home country draws to a close, a number of unexpected highly emotional events take place and long-hidden secrets are revealed. At this point the Woodstock audience, which enjoyed plenty of laughs during the run of the two hour play was silent, in awe of the climactic conclusion to Sybolt’s story.
The play, written by veteran Frisian playwright Romke Toering, convinces entirely. When we asked producer David Lelieveld and actor Theo Smedes about their expectations of performing for an audience of ‘real’ emigrants, they showed some trepidation. They need not have worried and when we spoke to Smedes again after the performance he said that he felt that the reactions may even have been more heartfelt here than back in Friesland. In a sense it feels that like Sybolt on his trip to Friesland, ‘De Emigrant’ with its performances in southern Ontario has come home.
Further performances in Jarvis, Brampton, London, Barrie, Chatham, Blyth, Whitby and Beamsville.
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