Skip to content

Jeroen Willems (1962 - 2012)

The Netherlands' greatest artist is dead. Can happen. But can I then also curse heartily? Because Jeroen Willems is irreplaceable.

As a journalist, you know the drill: of actors over sixty, or of otherwise fragile stature, you have a necrootje ready. If you are well-known and meet the requirements, count on the fact that your friends and acquaintances have already been approached by a reporter from any medium to say something nice about you. And if not, they are in the address book of the subject specialist at the radio or newspaper, to call as soon as your last breath is taken. Nice "depositions" you get from that, because that's what it's called in media land: "would you like to depose this-and-that?" says the chief to the employee.

I don't need to depose Jeroen Willems. There is even no reason to write a piece about it now, because why should I? No client asking for it. The relatives - and that's pretty much the entire Dutch theatre sector - don't comfort you with it, and they don't ask for it either. Personally, I didn't know Jeroen Willems either. I did know many of his friends, and on many occasions I was in the pub with the man who was taught the love of theatre by his father, who also died far too early: Fred Goessens.

I could thank Jeroen Willems here for my career, because, unbeknownst to him, I owe it to him. I was able to write a trial review for De Volkskrant in 1996 and chose the play M = Medea, Monologue and Murder, set to music by Louis Andriessen and directed by Paul Koek and Johan Simons. A - as I understood later - typical Hollandia piece: at a location where during the day only muscled men performed heavy work without humour (the Scheveningen fish auction), they presented the freest art (De Volharding and Louis Andriessen), thus featuring the best artist in the Netherlands.

You could see that even then.

But what makes someone the very best artist in the Netherlands? Or of Europe, because in fact in this corner of the world there was no second to be found with the quality of Jeroen Willems. I have seen almost everything by the man, and a simple listing of all his starring roles would not suffice. After all, there are more five-star actors and actresses in the Netherlands, but none of them are Jeroen Willems. Because what did he shock me with in that Scheveningen Medea piece, or in the bizarre monologue Two Voices, in which he perfectly portrayed the morbidity of big business, and why did he move me more deeply than Jacques Brel himself ever could in his interpretation of his most beautiful songs in the programme specially created for him by Rob Ligthert and Peer Wittenbols in Arnhem?

And why is the performance with Monteverdi's Madrigals by the Leiden Veenfabriek still one of the most intense theatre performances of my life? Why couldn't I turn off the audiobook of 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' recorded by him?

It is too simplistic to say that Jeroen Willems lived his roles. It is a cliché, and however pleasant, that is too little honour. I should perhaps say that Jeroen Willems managed to create the perfect suggestion that he himself was changed by his roles and interpretations, but still wished to remain himself. And that struggle, which is palpable in all great interpretations, and which every spectator takes home with him because he feels it himself, Jeroen Willems could engage and make palpable like no other. He was a champion of the personal struggle for survival, and like all true heroes, perhaps that is why he had to die young.

But 50 is way too damn young, even if you are a hero.

The Arts Chief of De Volkskrant hated my trial review of that Scheveningen play because I dared to say in the last line that I walked out afterwards as a different person. According to him, that was impossible with theatre. I still have my doubts, but I don't need to prove myself right anymore either. That chef died far too young a few years ago, and now Jeroen Willems is dead.

Sometimes it sucks to survive. But the life I lead has changed dramatically because of Jeroen Willems, and nobody takes that away from me anymore.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

Private Membership (month)
5€ / Maand
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Own mastodon account
Access to our archives
Small Membership (month)
18€ / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of less than €250,000 per year
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Posting press releases yourself
Extra attention in news coverage
Large Membership (month)
36€ / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of more than €250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Share press releases with our audience
Extra attention in news coverage
Premium Newsletter (substack)
5 trial subscriptions
All our podcasts

Payments are made via iDeal, Paypal, Credit Card, Bancontact or Direct Debit. If you prefer to pay manually, based on an invoice in advance, we charge a 10€ administration fee

*Only for annual membership or after 12 monthly payments

en_GBEnglish (UK)