Diederik van Vleuten: 'It could be an emotional minefield at our house'

Two old-fashioned wooden chairs stand on stage in front of a glossy black grand piano. Diederik van Vleuten is sitting on one of them. He plays a quatre-mains: My mother the goose, or Mother Goose, by composer Maurice Ravel – a piece intended for two pianists. But the seat next to him is empty. “I played this with my mother when I was fourteen,” he says afterwards. “Her father played it with her again. That is also a pattern in our family.”

Patterns in family histories. This is what Van Vleuten’s new performance, Brave forward, which will premiere this week in theater De Kleine Komedie in Amsterdam. The performance is not only a ‘monument’ to his mother, who died earlier this year, but also a more universal story about family systems. Van Vleuten, for example, depicts the war memoirs from his mother’s youth, plays precious piano pieces and recalls conversations he had with his psychiatrist in order to see through family patterns. The main question: how do past events carry over into generations after?

Brave forward is therefore, after previous historical programs about the Dutch East Indies (Something great was done there), the first World War (Outside Scots) in Churchill (My nights with Churchill) his most personal performance to date, says Van Vleuten. “I wanted to know more about my mother’s history, on the one hand to better understand myself. But also to give my mother recognition for what she has been through.”

You had another theater program on the shelf before.

Yes, I made that when the one and a half meter rule still applied in theaters. It was a theater lecture about Leonardo da Vinci – his childhood as a bastard son, his motivations – in which people did not have to sit directly next to each other. For a story about a painting like the Announced togetherness and intimacy is less necessary than for a story about war memories. I played three tryouts, then the theaters closed. When my mother passed away in January, I decided to put away the canvases with paintings for good.”

What made you want to make a performance about your mother?

“Her death had a huge impact on me. All kinds of memories came up, both about the good and the difficult sides of our relationship. Some people are four seasons in one day, my mother was sometimes four seasons in one sentence. That resulted in painful moments: she often saw things as an attack, quickly said that I was looking for a fight. Those memories made me want to understand her better. In addition, there was a lot of material available: my mother was 87 when she died, and still razor sharp. She had recently written down her war memories in a booklet.”

You talk a lot about family systems in the performance. What Do You Mean By That?

“It’s about passing on trauma. How do new generations deal with trauma from their parents? And are they aware of it? A lot has been written down in my family, which is an enormous wealth. For example, I know from the family records that my great-great-grandmother and her five young children were shipwrecked on the Somali coast in 1879. They fought for their lives in the desert. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that one of her daughters, in response to that trauma, spent her entire life taking care of other people and forgetting about herself. As a result, her children lost their mother again at a young age, and they too had to take care of themselves at an early age.

“Furthermore, many events at that time were completely silenced. I also know, for example, that my great-uncle Jan saw terrible things in the Dutch East Indies during the war and the Police Actions afterwards. It was not discussed, but such traumas do affect people, and therefore also their children.”

Also read: Interview with Van Vleuten: ‘I find feeling moved easier than laughing’

What traumas do you think your mother had?

“My mother was a child in wartime. She saw British planes crash, the father of one of her classmates was executed and she was once almost shot herself when she jumped on her bed and a German soldier fired a bullet because the blackout paper was not properly placed on the windows. In addition, her father was a resistance member: so often strange men with pseudonyms came over, and she sometimes had to pass on messages that she was not allowed to talk to anyone. She was always walking around with secrets, she knew she had to cover for her father. That’s too much of a responsibility for a child, and because of that, I think she’s been deficient emotionally. Although her father had the intention of course to protect her.”

What did you notice about it?

“Such tension does not simply disappear after the war. Her emotional shutters could sometimes close, then she built a wall around herself. The war was talked about, but often with humor, or as an exciting boys’ book story. Real emotions were tucked under the tiles. Children feel that – I was often afraid of conflict, navigated around all emotions and felt like the boy who had to make everything right. In our home, in addition to all the good things, it could also be an emotional minefield.”

A minefield your mother should have walked on herself?

“Precisely. That is passing on. I’ve often thought: you Frisian stiff-headed, couldn’t you just say sorry once after a fight? I experienced that as a great loss. But she couldn’t say sorry—because of what she’d been through. That is a sad inability, but also something I can now look at with compassion.”

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