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My dear Gunsteling you don't want to see and must have seen

Assault and finally rape of a 14-year-old girl by a bonkers vet. An enjoyable evening at the theatre is different, until the applause of this arguably (once again) best Dutch drama performance of the year relieves you of the harsh struggle.

Author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and director Ivo van Hove stress that both 49-year-old vet Kurt and his minion, the farmer's daughter, are severely traumatised. Both yearn for love and are initially and for a long time indistinguishable as perpetrator and victim.

I did not manage to finish the book Mijn lieve gunsteling, nor did my teenage daughter who travelled with me to Amsterdam's Stadsschouwburg on Sunday to enjoy the afternoon performance. Sitting for almost three hours at a time on the too narrow seat in the Rabo Hall, there is no escape. Normally an ailment causes me pain after an hour, now nothing.

Great actors

The cause: a phenomenally good play by Internationaal Toneel Amsterdam. Meanwhile, eulogies already passed to ITA debutant Eefje Paddenburg (23): 'outstanding' (in Trouw), 'shine role (in Volkskrant) and 'a small miracle' (in NRC). Indeed, Eefje is phenomenal, from exuberantly yearning for love and security to desperately searching for a way out of the trauma of her deceased brother. The sparkling closing song, never heard in a Dutch play before, betrays her childhood with the locally thriving Kleynkoor and theatre education in Noordwijk and creative Paddenburg family with brother Joep and sister Ilke, also acting.

In Ilke Paddenburg, 12 years older and acting ever more strongly in ITA's masterpieces, Eefje finds a mentor. She is also now by a intimacy coordinator supported. Beforehand, ITA sent visitors a warning about the nature of the performance with a reference to the Sexual Violence Centre. No one stayed or walked away Sunday, nor did anyone scream in dismay; merely through the cutting silence, laughter could be heard here and there from audience members who were at a loss to deal with their uncomfortable feelings.

And Hans Kesting as veterinarian Kurt (girl's pet name, of Kurt Cobain of the girl she admired club of 27) is again magisterial, have my admiration for him here previously expressed as an 'unrivalled actor'. ('Best' is a matter of taste, role and direction.) The deep pain of a childhood with abuse and mistreatment by mother Kurt so powerfully conveys in his paedophile lust that, as a spectator, you get understanding apart from disgust; which you don't want, nor your knowledge confirmed that abuse is ineradicable through transmission from generation to generation.

From tenderness to abuse

Mijn Lieve Gunsteling is written from the vet's point of view. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: "While writing, I became that man for my feelings... I didn't want to write an abuse story, because the situation is more complicated. He should know better as an adult, but that love is definitely mutual. He is not just a nasty man, a perpetrator; I wanted to show that. I wanted you to be able to understand from both sides what drives them. Their desires, loving each other unconditionally. About right and wrong. It's not black and white."

Both are looking for a way out of their hell: the girl from the farm where her intense feelings and desires leave her nowhere to go; the vet from a false life of a wrong marriage, tucked-away childhood and the nastiness of his profession such as culled cattle herds and farmer suicides.

Van Hove comments, "The painful thing is that what originally seems, for both the girl and Kurt, to be an intimate, tender and healing bond, becomes a sexual and destructive obsession, which no one in the immediate vicinity wants to see. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld derails this secret, forbidden love story in incredible, small steps. Only towards the end of the story does it become clear how total and criminal the boundary crossing is."

Criticism of Van Hove

Whether Ivo van Hove and screenwriter Jan Versweyveld show the struggles of both greedily and exhaustively in intense eroticism from the first moment or in "small steps" is up to the eye of the individual viewer. Their once again beautiful set offers straw all over the floor, live cows Dora and Trix, cloud decks, mirrors; effects range from clattering rains to falling pitch. The latter engulfs Kurt's mother, a wonderful role by Katelijne Damen who also plays Kurt's wife Camilla. Ditto for Bart Slegers as a burping father who drenches the loss of his infant son in silence, punctuated only by religious fervour and appreciative mutterings of spooned away 'aardolpols'.

In fact, these supporting roles are a kind of leading roles given the deep significance of the passed on suffering in helplessness; that past of Kurt and mother is lavishly portrayed, that of the father of his 'lost' daughter only to a limited extent. Equally, Kurt's son, also his 'rival' as the temporary lover of the farmer's daughter (Achraf Koutet) is a role with less significance than in the book.

Slegers fits the bill in his second role as Freud. Having him appear as Hitler is a joke some may appreciate. Just as the girl's showy bigotry with 9/11 and a clip about it will not bother most viewers. Nicely fitting though was guitarist Roos van Tuil on stage; with familiar pop songs and fragments of lyrics from the 1970s.

The baroque theatrical style of Van Hove, Versweyveld and dramatist Bart Van den Eynde gets some criticism. I don't share that, find this an unparalleled good exhaustive theatrical performance. Which I hope will go abroad and perhaps provoke a discussion there that is lacking in the Netherlands. No "should-that-now?" debate here, at most some grumbling about the amount of blood in the rape. While fantasising about paedosexuality is prohibited by law, as is the paedoclub Martijn. Rather explored The National Theatre these limits.

But debate is secondary; we rationalise horribly anyway. My dear minion makes an indelible impression on your mind, at least makes your blood curdle and perhaps boil; Eefje Paddenburg and Hans Kesting we never forget in their minstrelsy.

My dear minion by International Theatre Amsterdam, seen Sunday 29 January 2023, Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. Again visible from 26 May to 3 June, and already completely sold out.

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Peter Olsthoorn

Freelance journalist, does interviews and science for Intermediair; writes and speaks on topics including digitisation, data analytics, fraud and media for dailies/congresses; reviews theatre; and is daily grateful.View Author posts

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