Theatre It’s Only Theatre

Dar­ryn King meets Ivo van Hove

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

Dur­ing the Broad­way pro­duc­tion of The Cru­cible in 2016, as the au­di­ence set­tled back into their seats for the sec­ond act, a wolf ap­peared in the theatre. It moved pur­pose­fully down­stage, stood at the edge of the prosce­nium, and stared men­ac­ingly out into the au­di­to­rium. Ac­tu­ally, it was a pure­bred Ta­maskan dog, a thor­oughly trained lupine looka­like named Luchta. “He had to re­hearse more than Ben Whishaw,” says di­rec­tor Ivo van Hove, re­fer­ring to one of Luchta’s hu­man co-stars. Still, it gives you an idea of van Hove’s theatre, wherein an au­di­ence is made to feel that they’re in the pres­ence of some­thing real and un­pre­dictable and dan­ger­ous, and per­haps at risk of be­ing vi­ciously rav­aged by a wild an­i­mal. Van Hove is the artis­tic di­rec­tor of Toneel­groep Am­s­ter­dam, a Dutch reper­tory theatre whose home is a neo-Re­nais­sance build­ing called the Stadss­chouw­burg. I paid a visit in De­cem­ber, on the day of the com­pany Christ­mas party, but 59-year-old van Hove, pro­ject­ing the neat­ness and ef­fi­ciency of a switch­blade, was not in a par­ty­ing mood. Lead­ing the way to a lab-white meet­ing room, his re­sponse to be­ing asked how his day was go­ing was an un­jok­ing, “Don’t ask.” To say that the man is ma­ni­a­cally busy would be an un­der­state­ment; it’s get­ting so you can’t go any­where with­out stum­bling into a van Hove pro­duc­tion. This month you can catch Kings of War at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val, Net­work in Lon­don and La voix hu­maine in An­twerp; in April it’s Per­sona and Af­ter the Re­hearsal (an Ing­mar Bergman dou­ble bill) in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; in May Kings of War goes to Mon­treal; in June Ro­man Tragedies and the opera Boris Godounov open in Paris; and in July Vis­conti’s The Damned will be staged in New York. (This list, though ex­haust­ing, is not ex­haus­tive.) He’s also slated to di­rect Cate Blanchett in a new stage adap­ta­tion of the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve. In Lon­don and New York, star ac­tors have formed an or­derly queue: Whishaw, So­phie Okonedo and Saoirse Ro­nan in The Cru­cible, Juli­ette Binoche in Antigone, Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge, Ruth Wil­son in Hedda Gabler, Jude Law in Ob­ses­sion, Bryan Cranston in Net­work. (Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man au­di­tioned for van Hove in the ’90s, for the role of Stan­ley Kowal­ski. Not cast­ing him, van Hove says, was one of the big­gest mis­takes of his life. “I was afraid of him. Well, what to do with him?”) There are other big names be­hind the scenes. Philip Glass com­posed an orig­i­nal score for The Cru­cible, while Pa­trick Mar­ber per­son­ally pe­ti­tioned van Hove for the job of adapt­ing Hedda Gabler for the Na­tional Theatre. Van Hove col­lab­o­rated with Enda Walsh and David Bowie on the mu­si­cal Lazarus – one of Bowie’s fi­nal projects. (The ail­ing Bowie told van Hove he wanted to do a fol­low-up. “And he re­ally meant it,” says van Hove ten­derly. “He was full of plans.”) There’s more to van Hove than ac­cess to celebrity wattage, though. Few if any liv­ing the­atremak­ers pos­sess such re­li­able, rev­e­la­tory power to cre­ate the­atri­cal mo­ments, im­ages and worlds that, lit­er­ally, cause jaws to drop. Van Hove’s An­gels in Amer­ica was staged in a black void with lit­tle more than the ac­tors, a DJ turntable and an IV pole. (Play­wright Tony Kush­ner called it the best pro­duc­tion of the play he’d ever seen.) A View from the Bridge was sim­i­larly staged sans scenery and props, the per­for­mance space the size of a box­ing ring, the ac­tors bare­foot. In Scenes from a Mar­riage, the cou­ple was played, at dif­fer­ent times in their lives, by three pairs of ac­tors for three sets of au­di­ences, at the same time, in ad­ja­cent thin-walled rooms. And in The Cru­cible, one of the Salemite girls was hoisted sky­wards by dev­il­ish magic – a freaky but in­ten­tional twist on Miller’s al­le­gory, which cru­cially fea­tures no real witchery.

For the most part, he is con­sid­ered a blast of fresh air for an art form in need of oxy­gena­tion.

Then there are the times when, with the use of live cam­er­a­work and gi­ant screens, van Hove’s pro­duc­tions tran­scend the nat­u­ral bound­aries of the stage, spilling into the theatre’s cor­ri­dors, dress­ing rooms and stair­cases or, as in the case of Net­work, into the street as passers-by gawk and stare. Theatre be­ing theatre, haters gonna hate. In the ’90s and early ’00s, van Hove’s work was de­rided as gim­micky “Euro­trash”. The Wall Street Jour­nal’s drama critic Terry Tea­chout re­gards van Hove as “the most pre­ten­tious stage di­rec­tor of our time”. Play­wright David Hare re­cently de­scribed van Hove as the source of a con­ta­gious dis­ease in­fect­ing the theatre tra­di­tion. Van Hove is em­bold­ened, not de­terred, by his de­trac­tors. “I see that never as a threat. I see it as an op­por­tu­nity.” And, for the most part, he is con­sid­ered a blast of fresh air for an art form in need of oxy­gena­tion. A View from the Bridge, in par­tic­u­lar, has been held up as a water­shed pro­duc­tion, bring­ing an edgy in­ten­sity – the show cul­mi­nated in an apoc­a­lyp­tic rain of blood – to Lon­don’s con­ser­va­tive West End. “My mis­sion in life has al­ways been to make the most per­sonal, the most ur­gent and, you could say,

“Yeah, but that al­ways hap­pens,” he says, in a tone sug­gest­ing it was just your av­er­age week­end knight­hood cer­e­mony.

unique pro­duc­tions,” he says. “But for as large an au­di­ence as pos­si­ble. And with­out mak­ing any com­pro­mises. With­out pleas­ing them. I don’t like theatre that tries to please me.” In 2014, van Hove’s La voix hu­maine and Ro­man Tragedies were pre­sented at the Syd­ney and Ade­laide fes­ti­vals, re­spec­tively. The pro­duc­tions could scarcely have been more dif­fer­ent: in the for­mer, the au­di­ence spied voyeuris­ti­cally on one woman speak­ing into a phone be­hind glass; the lat­ter was a sprawl­ing six-hour marathon of Julius Cae­sar, Antony and Cleopa­tra and Co­ri­olanus, in which the au­di­ence en­tered and ex­plored the per­for­mance space at will. This year, van Hove re­turns to the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val in epic mode. Kings of War is van Hove’s four-and-a-halfhour dis­til­la­tion of Henry V, Henry VI parts I, II and III and Richard III, with a smat­ter­ing of Henry IV Part II. It’s an ex­am­i­na­tion of dif­fer­ent styles of lead­er­ship: the dash­ing diplo­macy of Henry V, the prayer­ful piti­ful­ness of Henry VI, and the reign of ter­ror of Richard III – Dutch ac­tor Hans Kest­ing at his slim­i­est – as he wreaks havoc out of, among other things, sheer bore­dom. Like Ro­man Tragedies, it’s theatre as binge-watch, a mini-fes­ti­val in it­self, mak­ing full and riv­et­ing use of a rov­ing cam­era op­er­a­tor and a gi­ant screen, seam­lessly in­te­grated live and pre­re­corded footage, an an­i­mated seg­ment on the Bat­tle of Agin­court, a fog ma­chine, a brass quar­tet, a coo­ing coun­tertenor, and a flock of sheep. Kings of War played Brook­lyn, New York, in Novem­ber 2016, in the days lead­ing up to the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. For those au­di­ences, the im­age of a mon­strous, howl­ing Richard III was fresh in the mind when the poll re­sults crept in. The New Yorker called the pro­duc­tion the “first great the­atri­cal work of the Trump era”. “That was so strange,” says van Hove. “Richard III was like a mir­ror for them. Some­body who uses power not re­ally for the ben­e­fit of the coun­try. “That was also a great thing to feel, that, with our theatre, we could make the Amer­i­cans think about their own sit­u­a­tion, even when we made it in a to­tally dif­fer­ent con­text. Ev­ery­body sees some­thing else in it. That’s the beauty of art.” Ivo van Hove grew up in a small vil­lage of farm­ers and coalmin­ers in ru­ral Bel­gium, and one of his ear­li­est sear­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of art was the death of Bambi’s mother in Bambi. “Very ob­vi­ous, per­haps,” he says. “But for me it changed my world. Driv­ing on the bus back home for an hour with my mother, I cried the whole time. It moved me tremen­dously. To­tal fic­tion that could move you to the bone. That stayed in my mind, and in my heart al­ways.” At board­ing school, van Hove be­came in­volved in drama, per­form­ing for fel­low stu­dents and par­ents in plays writ­ten by the teach­ers. While study­ing at art school in An­twerp, he met Jan Versweyveld, a pro­duc­tion and light­ing de­signer, at a modern dance class. They’ve been part­ners in life and art ever since; Versweyveld has de­signed for other di­rec­tors and chore­og­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Anne Teresa De Keers­maeker, but van Hove re­fuses to even imag­ine work­ing with­out Versweyveld’s in­volve­ment. “I’m loyal, he’s dis­loyal,” he says. To­gether they opened Café Il­lusie, across from An­twerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. There was live en­ter­tain­ment: shows in the cel­lar, opera stars per­form­ing arias as peo­ple dined. Less con­ven­tion­ally, van Hove per­son­ally per­suaded a lo­cal zookeeper to bring pen­guins to the bar for a “pen­guin party”. “We had a lot of ideas,” he says. Van Hove’s con­cept of theatre drew on his fas­ci­na­tion with per­for­mance art, par­tic­u­larly such ex­treme, death-toy­ing stunts as Ma­rina Abramović’s Rest En­ergy (bow­string drawn, ar­row aimed at her heart) and the Chris Bur­den piece that left the artist with a bul­let in the arm. At the age of 20, in his ear­li­est work as a di­rec­tor, van Hove was al­ready ex­per­i­ment­ing with the di­vide be­tween re­al­ity and fic­tion, ac­tor and au­di­ence, to con­fronting ef­fect. His au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally driven first work, Ru­mours, was an im­mer­sive theatre piece decades be­fore im­mer­sive theatre be­came de rigueur, staged in an aban­doned laun­dry build­ing. He re­cruited (he uses the word “se­duced”) 30 non-ac­tors to per­form for 30 au­di­ence mem­bers at a time. A teacher of van Hove’s who saw the show de­scribed it as “a pri­mal scream”. “I thought, That’s the best de­scrip­tion you could give. A pri­mal scream. ‘I am here. Lis­ten to me. Look at me.’ “I dis­cov­ered very early in my life, luck­ily, that in theatre – and opera later on – I found the per­fect way of ex­press­ing who I am, and what I think about peo­ple, and about life, and about so­ci­ety.” Be­yond di­rect­ing Sopho­cles and Shakespeare, van Hove be­came a pi­o­neer in stag­ing adap­ta­tions of films (An­to­nioni, Bergman, Cas­savetes) as well as other un­con­ven­tional non-theatre texts (Su­san Son­tag, Ayn Rand). His use of live cam­eras and jum­botron­style screens – start­ing with Al­bert Camus’ Caligula in 1995 – also proved to be hugely in­flu­en­tial. In 2001, van Hove be­came artis­tic di­rec­tor of Toneel­groep Am­s­ter­dam, and af­ter Septem­ber 11 his work grew more po­lit­i­cal, out­ward-look­ing, mon­u­men­tal, reach­ing a creative apoth­e­o­sis in his Shakespeare sa­gas, Ro­man Tragedies and Kings of War. With Toneel­groep, van Hove has also skil­fully man­aged to defy the typ­i­cally ephe­meral na­ture of theatre, build­ing a reper­toire of pro­duc­tions that have been staged

around the world, in some cases, for a decade or more. “I used to make pro­duc­tions that af­ter two weeks or two months were gone. There’s only a doc­u­ment, a pro­gram, fad­ing pho­tos. But some­times you want to live with some­thing. It’s very good for the ac­tors, for au­di­ences in Am­s­ter­dam, but also for me. You can learn from your­self, you can re­flect on your­self. I see it as my life. “And my work brings me fur­ther. Think­ing about the things that the Greeks wrote about, or Shakespeare wrote about, or Molière wrote about, or Tony Kush­ner writes about, makes me a bet­ter per­son. And it’s a badge of hon­our that the work we make seems to in­spire a new gen­er­a­tion. That they feel more lib­er­ated from the con­straints that used to be there.” Lately, fly­ing be­tween ap­point­ments is the only down­time van Hove gets in which to read and con­sider scripts. “A lot of di­rec­tors un­der­es­ti­mate the time be­fore they start re­hearsal. To know ex­actly why you want to do this text.” It’s be­come typ­i­cal for him to, for ex­am­ple, spend a day in re­hearsals in Lon­don, travel to Tokyo in the evening for a one-night-only per­for­mance, and travel back to Lon­don for re­hearsals the next day. Or travel to Bel­gium for the week­end to be knighted. “Yeah, but that al­ways hap­pens,” he says, in a tone sug­gest­ing it was just your av­er­age week­end knight­hood cer­e­mony. “It freaks out the pro­duc­ers.” And he mar­ried Versweyveld dur­ing a re­hearsal break. “We were re­hears­ing – you will not be­lieve this – The Nor­man Con­quests by Alan Ay­ck­bourn. Five hours of com­edy about mar­riage. Mar­riages fall­ing apart, peo­ple not happy to­gether but stay­ing to­gether. So, yeah, that was not a very ro­man­tic thing to do.” Versweyveld has pointed out that, over the years, van Hove has been us­ing warmer on­stage light­ing rather than the cold flu­o­res­cence he pre­ferred in the old days. “That’s an artis­tic quar­rel we have all the time,” says van Hove. “He likes the harsh light. I’m mel­low­ing in the light. But I think it’s be­cause I need to, more and more, bring the au­di­ences nearer to us, to look at things much more care­fully. So I can then show the darker things a lit­tle more ex­tremely.” And yet van Hove also knows when to pull back, ease up. While re­hears­ing the fi­nal, har­row­ing, scene of Hedda Gabler in Lon­don, ac­tress Ruth Wil­son broke down, caught up in the mo­ment and her char­ac­ter, and un­able to con­tinue. Van Hove sent ev­ery­one home for the day. “That some­times hap­pens with me,” he says, al­most shame­faced. “I can de­scribe some­thing so well that some­body gets— But then I stopped. I don’t push. I said, ‘Go home, take a bath, re­lax. If you feel to­mor­row like com­ing, come; if not, let me know. It’s only theatre.’”

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