The opening image of My Mother’s Century, Eric de Vroedt’s new marathon performance, is accurate. An old woman with a half-open umbrella stands in the center of the room, silent as a statue. A man, perhaps the artist behind this image, walks up to her and sprays the umbrella with a water spray. Watch some more. Yes, that’s right. But then the woman moves: she opens and closes her umbrella and breaks free from the congealed image. She can’t just be pinned down in the identity that has been devised for her.
The artist’s name is Ramses de Vroedt (Bram Coopmans), and tonight the opening of his exhibition is Exorcism of my colonial mind in the Kunstmuseum The Hague. The most important work focuses on the life of Ramses’ mother Winnie de Willigen (Esther Scheldwacht): by means of video installations and live reenactments he tries to trace her childhood in the waning days of the Dutch East Indies, and the influence of the colonial past to capture the rest of her life. Winnie, herself guest of honor at the opening, seems a little uneasy about being reduced to a symbol of colonial oppression by her son, and an indistinct resentment shines through in the distant way in which Ramses treats her.
However, the underlying conflict does not surface until the third part of the play: the first two parts are dominated by the reenactments of various pivotal moments in Winnie’s life. It is a smart move by De Vroedt to have these scenes play out as theatre-within-the-theatre: because they are staged by Ramses, you are always aware that you are looking at his interpretation. The subjectivity of our view of the past thus takes center stage; Ramses does not seem the most reliable narrator due to his dogged need to get a grip on his mother.
My Mother’s Century installs a fascinating field of tension between the political and the personal right from the start. Ramses uses his family history to say something about decolonization, but as the play progresses he has to recognize more and more that he actually has something to fight with his mother on a personal level. The play also follows this development itself: while in the first reenactment, which takes place at a family dinner in 1968, the aftermath of the Second World War and the Bersiap are still clearly present, in the second part in 1982 the characters seem to have detached from that history, and rather the influence of the second wave of feminism is central. Scheldwacht plays Winnie as an autonomous yet conflict-avoiding woman who resolutely chooses for her own development and refuses to look back – something that her son, who feels neglected by her, does not thank her.
Also read: Eric de Vroedt: ‘I can have conversations with my mother on stage’
Due to the long re-enactments, My Mother’s Century a bit of a slow pace. De Vroedt takes the time to immerse you in the junctures that the performance covers, and in the family dynamics that determine the mutual relationships. That asks a lot of the cast, who fortunately without exception manage to fulfill that task wonderfully. In addition to veterans such as Mark Rietman, Hein van der Heiden and Antoinette Jelgersma, the young actors also impress: Denise Aznam, Jatou Sumbunu and Emma Buysse play Winnie’s half-sisters with a teasing chemistry that immediately convinces. In the second part, Romana Vrede stars as Gudrun, Winnie’s new lover. The profusion of dialogue in the three-and-a-half hour piece is made palatable by the dynamic play of a cast that is perfectly attuned to each other, and knows how to give each sentence a specific load.
Political correctness silenced
In the superior third part, Ramses and Winnie finally start a conversation. The heated atmosphere of political correctness in the Kunstmuseum has died down: after a tense meeting with his family, where Ramses finds it difficult to accept that his brother-in-law has built a better relationship with his mother than he has himself, he and Winnie are left alone. In the heartbreaking confrontation that follows, De Vroedt shows his strongest side as a writer and director: he meticulously unravels the mutual frustrations and resentments, without leading to a final rapprochement.
It makes My Mother’s Century into a remarkably personal addition to De Vroedt’s oeuvre. The performance sometimes seems to be primarily a dialogue between the director and himself, about the social urgency of his artistry, about his relationship with his deceased mother, about his own bicultural background. And it is precisely this ultimate surrender to the personal that ultimately makes the performance politically interesting again: the inability of mother and son to let go of their own resentments and really learn to listen to each other is a stimulating metaphor for the social debate about history. discern.