For high-quality cocaine you had to be in Amsterdam. Not in a dark alley, but at a large factory on the Schinkelkade in the Oud-Zuid district. A century ago, the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF) produced 500 to 900 kilos of white powder per year, legally, for an international market. “The ships with coca leaves from Java arrived here along the canal,” points out Michiel Schreuders. Schreuders is artistic director of Tafel van Vijf Muziektheater and creator-composer of the musical ‘game performance’ The Dutch Cocaine Factorya co-production with Museum Huis Doorn, which premieres on Thursday.
“The factory was just in a residential area,” says Schreuders in a café, opposite the place where the NCF was founded in 1900. “The factory was an immediate commercial success, but local residents complained about nuisance. The factory was first expanded, but after about ten years production moved to a location on the edge of the city, on the Duivendrechtsekade.” In 1962, the NFC was taken over by pharmaceutical company Koninklijke Zwanenberg Organon; Shortly afterwards the Amsterdam factory closed its doors.
The performance is set during the First World War and is about Lucien, a representative of the NCF, who faces all kinds of moral dilemmas. Star actress Pola falls for Lucien’s charms, but especially for his access to free coke. Meanwhile, a British soldier returns from the trenches badly maimed – he could also use some anesthesia. The three roles are played by actor Gustav Borreman, who switches virtuoso between the characters during a rehearsal in Studio de Generator in Amsterdam. Three musicians, including Schreuders himself, play small roles and comment on the action with pop songs.
“We are a kind of Greek choir, but I also think it is important that musicians have a role on stage, a double function,” says Schreuders. The decor looks like a cross between a drug lab, a factory and a music venue. Pounding machines suggest a production floor. Doan Hendriks of Theater Group BOT built some great ones instruments from drainpipes, barrels, jerry cans and test tubes. They not only look good, they also sound good, as became apparent during the rehearsal.
Tafel van Vijf Music Theater creates performances about historical subjects that have a link with current events. In this case, the germ of the idea was quite macabre: in the week that Schreuders moved with his family to the Osdorp district in 2014, someone was liquidated in his street.
“The police tape was stuck to my garden fence,” says Schreuders. “It was a settlement within the drug mafia. That boy had been shot dead in his own car and they had parked it in front of his parental home.” The incident made Schreuders think: “Such a boy has no idea which chess game he is in. He is not evilbut someone who made a wrong choice.”
Today’s young people come into contact with drugs or drug crime no matter what
When he delved into contemporary drug crime, Schreuders came across the story of the NCF. The performance is loosely based on the novel The traveling salesman of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (2009) by writer Conny Braam. Schreuders: “In the book Lucien has a rough edge, but I want to show that anyone can end up in his situation. He’s not a calculating bastard, he’s in a system that fucked up is, but difficult to stop. That’s why I’m so happy with Gustav: he’s so engaging, you can immediately see that he’s a good guy.”
Schreuders saw a parallel with the present: “Today’s young people come into contact with drugs or drug crime no matter what. I wanted to let them make their own choices in the performance. That’s how I came up with the idea of a game show.” Schreuders developed the idea together with set designer Judith Hofland and ‘game dramaturge’ Steye Hallema. Even before the summer of 2022, they visited secondary schools with a basic version to test the concept. Young people form teams of seven, with a team captain operating the scoreboard. Before the performance, they visit a pop-up exhibition about the NCF created by Museum Huis Doorn. During the performance, actor Borreman presents them with dilemmas and they have to make choices as a team.
Also read: The cocaine factory wasn’t that big after all
Schreuders: “The testing at schools was great. You immediately see what works and what doesn’t. Only when the game and the dilemmas were well defined did Enver Husicicć write the final text, in which the story and the game flow smoothly into each other.” Borreman confronts the audience with a dilemma on a large cardboard plate. Once all teams have chosen, he shows the consequences of the different choices on the back of the board. On analog scoreboards, the team captains keep track of three scores: social consequences; risk incurred; and profit. Schreuders: “In the beginning you see that everyone is on the same page, but as the dilemmas become more complex, more and more discussion arises. And that is exactly what we want.”