It shouldn’t be easy to make semi-autobiographical work. If you stay too close to the truth, you risk offending those close to you, or you come close to self-therapy; change too many details, and the texture and nuances of what you experienced are lost.
Writer Daan Heerma van Voss and director Jan Hulst participate Dear friends, family, guests a brave attempt to translate a ‘terribly precious night’ from Hulst’s life to the stage: the dark hours before his mother’s funeral, in which he wrote his speech with the help of his best friend.
Hulst was previously inspired by the death of his mother and the relationship with his father, in the beautiful revolution drama La pretenzain which he had his father Kees Hulst play the role of the patriarch himself.
Straight to the goal
But where the autobiographical elements were hidden under a thick layer of fiction, writer Heerma van Voss, in his debut as a playwright, went much straighter to his goal. Details have changed – in the play the father has died instead of the mother, and the whole thing is not set in the theater world – but the form of the performance is close to what you can imagine from the anecdote.
The interesting drama is there for the taking. The mother left her husband for someone else just before his suicide. The son (and a toxic gossiping outside world) resents her for this and has put his father on a pedestal.
That is exactly what stuck him in writing his speech: it has become a meaningless hymn, more of a PR talk than an honest expression of love. In this way, Heerma van Voss and Hulst sow the seeds of an emancipation drama: between the lines you can notice how much the son gets in the way of himself with his inverted Oedipus complex.
The strange thing is, that drama doesn’t get off the ground. The characters’ reflections always remain too much on the surface to really get to an emotional core. Heerma van Voss does not develop the lines he draws sufficiently and gets stuck in superficial details. The friendship between the son and his best friend, who helps him through the evening, does not come to fruition because the first is drowning in drink and self-pity and the second only continues to play a role as a leader – nowhere is a shared history palpable. The most beautiful scenes are the telephone conversations between mother and son, but they also do not delve deeply enough into the conflicting emotions that rage through the mother.
The fact that the drama remains inert also has to do with the game direction. Hulst normally uses an alienating acting style and is visibly less able to cope with this conventional psychological drama: the acting is flat at the premiere, as if the actors are continuously playing on the handbrake. Just a little more craziness Dear friends, family, guests to give some relief: now both text and direction remain stuck in obedience.