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Performing Shakespeare in Dutch

Onno van Gelder Jr., a Flemish actor and stage director from Belgium, talks about his experience of performing Shakespeare in his native Dutch.

Onno van Gelder Jr.

On stage Onno van Gelder has performed in many leading roles in plays such as Under Milk Wood, John McCrae, The Call of Duty and Scenes From a Marriage. He has been in front of the camera for several short films and television series. Passages, a collection of short stories, is his debut as an author.

For quite some time now I have been a great admirer of Shakespeare's sonnets. I have this little book with translations by W. van Elden. It has the sonnets in English on the left page and the translations into Dutch on the right page. Although some pages are thrice thumbed and although some of them show tea stains or proof of my being a chocoholic, it still is one of my favourite books that easily travels with me. Luckily, it has a hard cover.

The original translation of all the sonnets by van Elden dates from 1959. This is not the only one into Dutch; there must be over a dozen. Which is quite a lot, I think, as the Dutch language isn’t that widely spread. So why van Elden for me? Because his translations stay very close to the original language and imagery of Shakespeare. Van Elden truly succeeds in capturing the spirit and real meaning of the words or a verse. A fellow writer of mine prefers the translation by van der Krogt. He translated the sonnets more freely, using a more contemporary language. His language is, if you may call it that way, less ‘swollen’. Anyway, that is the term we use in Dutch, without it being negative.

By comparing translations, we can see how rich Shakespeare's work really is. That certainly goes for all his plays. As an actor/stage director, and, of course, fan of Shakespeare, I have all his plays in my library translated into Dutch by Willy Courteau. His work is to be considered as a reference. I directed Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew. As several translations and adaptations were available I started by reading them all. One thing became clear very quickly: Shakespeare always survived. His themes, plots, characters or emotions are so universal and recognisable that they are indestructible. 

In his time Shakespeare lived amongst common folks as well as high society. He socialised with artists, noble men, people from the red light district, young and old, as well as labourers, and that gave him an enormous insight into social interactions. He depicts all kinds of people in his plays: witty, vulgar, highly educated, common, plain, playful, stupid. He always gives them lines full of puns. And that is what I so love about Shakespeare, every role can be made unforgettable. 

For Much Ado… I went for a version that stayed closer to the original. We also produced it in period clothing but with a light modern touch concerning the setting. As for Taming…, I went for the opposite by choosing a very recent adaptation set in our times. In both cases the audience was able to enjoy the richness of Shakespeare's language. As an actor I played Horatio in Hamlet and Ariel in The Tempest. I mostly remember Ariel, a mad, funny character doing all kinds of bizarre things on stage.

I often read a sonnet out loud before family or friends after a nice dinner or with a good single malt whisky to one side. Discussing it, giving some feedback about the sweet youth or dark lady for whom he wrote the sonnets, trying to capture some souls for the Shakespearean cause. It is all about keeping the heritage alive. Having said this, I hope you will enjoy my readings of some of his sonnets.

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