PRO­FILE: The­atre di­rec­tor Ivo van Hove.

“We never in­tended the par­al­lel. Trump was not even a can­di­date at the stage when we first planned the show. ”

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Pe­ter Craven

Ivo van Hove is one of those the­atre di­rec­tors who strad­dle worlds. The Bel­gian-born 59-year-old – whose four-and-a-half-hour adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare’s his­tory plays, Kings of War, will be per­formed at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val next month in sur­titled Dutch by his Toneel­groep Am­s­ter­dam com­pany – is one of the great pro­gres­sivists of the con­tem­po­rary the­atre. He is some­one who shows what can be done to the the­atre with ev­ery trick of dis­tor­tion and icon­o­clasm, ev­ery live video feed of atroc­ity, ev­ery dis­lo­ca­tion. He is a man in love with the clas­si­cal and clas­sic mod­ern reper­toire, who ex­tends the stage to take in the scripts of mod­ern movies.

Van Hove did a daz­zling ver­sion of Ib­sen’s Hedda Gabler with Ruth Wil­son – the young mur­der­ess and com­rade-in-arms of Idris Elba in TV’s Luther – and then Sopho­cles’s Antigone in the trans­la­tion of poet Anne Car­son with Juli­ette Binoche in the ti­tle role at Lon­don’s Bar­bican and the Châtelet in Paris. But he also, re­cently, did a ver­sion of Vis­conti’s Osses­sione (Ob­ses­sion) – it­self an adap­ta­tion of The Post­man Al­ways Rings Twice – seen here as a Na­tional The­atre Live broad­cast with Jude Law. Some­time in the next year or so, Lon­don’s West End will see Cate Blanchett in his adap­ta­tion of All About Eve, the Bette Davis movie of 1950 writ­ten and di­rected by Joseph Mankiewicz.

So, did van Hove – like so many stage di­rec­tors – want to do film? He says his 2009 ef­fort, Am­s­ter­dam, was not ev­ery­thing it might have been and he was es­tab­lished as a stage di­rec­tor long be­fore film be­came a pos­si­bil­ity.

I ask if his di­rec­to­rial tal­ent – un­like that of Ing­mar Bergman and Luchino Vis­conti, whom he has adapted – is pri­mar­ily in­ter­pre­ta­tive? He says he had been fid­dling with his own work when Shake­speare came along.

“I hap­pened to do a pro­duc­tion of Troilus and Cres­sida,” he says. “And I re­alised I needed that fil­ter. That’s when I started to de­velop.”

Okay, but why the film scripts?

“Be­cause I live 50 years later in a dif­fer­ent era. I turn to movie scripts when I’m look­ing for some­thing I can­not find in clas­sic the­atre scripts.”

Van Hove talks about the new op­por­tu­ni­ties the script for John Cas­savetes’ Open­ing Night, per­formed at the Mel­bourne Fes­ti­val in 2010, opened up and makes his case for what could be in­no­va­tive about his pro­duc­tion of Ing­mar Bergman’s Cries and Whis­pers.

“In one cru­cial scene,” he says, “there was no script, only a let­ter out­lin­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a cen­tral char­ac­ter. Should she be sur­rounded by lov­ing peo­ple help­ing her die or should she die cru­elly, alone? The pos­si­bil­i­ties are wide open in Bergman’s let­ter.”

He talks about his adap­tion of Vis­conti’s The Damned. Re­mem­ber Dirk Bog­a­rde and In­grid Thulin and the very young Char­lotte Ram­pling in that epi­cal in­dict­ment of the lurch to­wards Hitler? Van Hove did it with the Comédie-Française at the Avi­gnon Fes­ti­val. “It’s like a mod­ern adap­ta­tion of The Oresteia or Mac­beth,” he says.

For this Bel­gian tin­kerer with the words of drama, the idea of lit­er­a­ture looms large even when the medium seems op­po­site to a lit­er­ary the­atre.

He says he got on well with Binoche and had known her for a while when they tack­led one of the most for­mi­da­ble and formidably di­alec­ti­cal of well-made plays. “We de­cided we should go for Greek tragedy,” he says, “and we ended up with Antigone. It’s about a woman whose story must be lis­tened to, a very strong char­ac­ter, and Juli­ette saw it as a great op­por­tu­nity.”

He says they de­cided to ap­proach the poet and clas­si­cist Anne Car­son, whose pre­vi­ous ver­sion of the play, Antigo­nick, was “en­tirely” an adap­ta­tion. “The char­ac­ter of Creon was re­duced to al­most noth­ing but a bru­tal ag­gres­sor.” Car­son said she would do him a proper, faith­ful trans­la­tion in­stead, and the up­shot was elec­tri­fy­ing in per­for­mance.

Wasn’t Binoche a bit old to be play­ing a – fiery, ad­mit­tedly – slip of a girl?

“I couldn’t care less,” he says. “It didn’t mat­ter.

This char­ac­ter is age­less. The thing to re­mem­ber is that Antigone is not a po­lit­i­cal per­son. She is not against Creon. She is sim­ply some­one who be­lieves that some­one in death should not be treated as rub­bish, as a dirt­bag. She cares about her brother. She cares about the things Creon has lost the abil­ity to care about.”

And then, of course, Sopho­cles turns around and makes it Creon’s tragedy, too.

“Yes,” van Hove says. “It’s hard be­cause she leaves the play. But Antigone is emo­tion­ally grounded be­cause it’s also the rise and fall of this man.”

When you talk to van Hove you get the strong­est sense of a man of the the­atre who is not in­ter­ested in any sub­tle ver­bal in­ter­pre­ta­tion but who wants to show sim­ple – some­times over­pow­er­ing – things with all the clar­ity and feel­ing he can muster.

If you ask him if he agrees with Pe­ter Hall that a high frac­tion of di­rect­ing is cast­ing, he says it’s dif­fer­ent for him with his Toneel­groep than when he free­lances. In or­der to ex­em­plify what he calls “the mix­ture”, he says that the main rea­son he did Net­work on stage – from the Paddy Chayef­sky script for the Sid­ney Lumet film – was that he imag­ined Bryan Cranston of Break­ing Bad in the lead­ing role.

Some­times his cast­ing will ride roughshod over pre­con­cep­tion, as when he did The Cru­cible with Ben Whishaw – Jane Cam­pion’s Keats, Se­bas­tian in the Brideshead Re­vis­ited re­make, Julie Tay­mor’s Ariel in the He­len Mir­ren Tem­pest – as John Proc­tor.

“There’s the cliché we bring to these things,” he says. “Proc­tor is a farmer so we think he has to be big, like Daniel Day-Lewis. Well, I grew up with farm­ers and none of them were huge, and Ben turned out to be a coun­try­side boy.”

He takes a step side­ways to in­di­cate the im­por­tance of get­ting away from pre­con­cep­tion. There was his very suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tion of Arthur Miller’s

A View from the Bridge, with Mark Strong, set – very con­cen­trat­edly and con­vinc­ingly – in a box­ing ring.

“I did it like a con­tem­po­rary Greek tragedy,” he says. “And that turned out to be Miller’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tion. It was only when Pe­ter Brook did it in Lon­don that it be­came a huge dis­play of Ital­ian neo-re­al­ism.”

He says that his Cru­cible was all about “scape­goat­ing”. It was per­formed in New York in the mid­dle of the Trump/Clin­ton elec­tion, with all the shriek­ing about liars.

Again, there’s that char­ac­ter­is­tic note in van Hove of re­turn­ing to ba­sics.

“Ben’s Proc­tor was a man who had made one mis­take in his life. He doesn’t want to. He ac­cepts what he’s done. He doesn’t love Abi­gail and she doesn’t want to give him up.” His Abi­gail was played by the young Amer­i­can Irish star Saoirse Ro­nan, for whom the high­est claims are be­ing made at the mo­ment with a Golden Globe win and Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Lady Bird.

Van Hove agrees that she’ll win ev­ery award in the world even­tu­ally. What daz­zled him, though, was her in­stinc­tive grasp of the stage. “She’s great. She had never done the­atre but her com­mand of it was in­stinc­tive.” Even her voice and pro­jec­tion?

“Yes, it was as­ton­ish­ing. It was as if it just came out of the dark. It was a to­tal sur­prise and it was amaz­ing.”

You can tell from the won­der in his voice that this man is that rarest of all things, an ac­tor’s di­rec­tor. For all the grandeur of his con­cep­tions, he clearly knows that ac­tors are not pup­pets and this gov­erns ev­ery­thing he says; it is as strik­ing as his em­pha­sis on pri­mary emo­tion.

He’s rue­ful about his own at­tempt at film di­rect­ing and about the state of Dutch film gen­er­ally, but he glows when I ask him about Paul Ver­ho­even, the Dutch di­rec­tor who made Starship Troop­ers and Show­girls and then made such an ex­tra­or­di­nary splash with Elle last year, which had Is­abelle Hup­pert play­ing a woman who be­comes en­thralled with a mys­tery as­sailant.

“I loved it,” he says, sound­ing rhap­sodic. “I ad­mired it so much. It was as if he was 25 again. And Hup­pert, an old friend, was per­fect. There’s an ac­tress who has a real con­nec­tion to her darker side.”

Al­though he does not know Ver­ho­even, van Hove “wrote him a mes­sage” to tell him how much he loved the film.

Van Hove’s next pas­sion is All About Eve. He tells the story about how he went to see So­nia Fried­man, the Lon­don pro­ducer who did the Harry Pot­ter play, and told her how much he would like to get the rights to the Hol­ly­wood clas­sic. She looked at him and said, “I have them.”

“And then,” he says, “she shook my hand and said. ‘We have a deal.’”

Again van Hove em­pha­sises that it’s the script, not the Bette Davis leg­end, he’s in­tent on.

“It’s al­most writ­ten as a the­atre play,” he says. “It stays as close as pos­si­ble to the script and it should not res­onate as a mu­seum piece.”

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to talk to a man of the the­atre whose dream fac­tory is, in a nearly ex­plicit way, partly made up of the films he’s seen that re­sem­ble great plays and which draw on the same kind of en­er­gies and feel­ings.

Shake­speare, it’s some­times said, would have used ev­ery cin­e­matic trick he could – on stage, on film, on any­thing. Van Hove ex­hibits in his quiet, in­tense way some­thing of the zest you sense be­hind Shake­speare’s spec­tac­u­lar­ism and his tonal range.

What was his vi­sion for Shake­speare’s his­tory plays in Kings of War?

“We’re in a cri­sis of lead­er­ship,” he says. “When peo­ple voted for Obama they were full of hope. Then they were dis­ap­pointed … We ex­cluded a lot. I’m not in­ter­ested in the Wars of the Roses. I was in­ter­ested in three kings – Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III – and their at­ti­tude to war.

“Wars are things you can win, but even if you win the war you will have a lot of prob­lems. In Richard III you have a king who cre­ates war in or­der to be king.”

He says that the pre­am­ble is the scene from

Henry IV, where Henry V as Prince Hal puts on his fa­ther’s crown. “We present him as drunk, as just a col­lege boy. But he’s some­one who goes to war to cre­ate peace. He’s a king who can lis­ten to peo­ple.”

Again with van Hove what’s pointed to is sim­ple in one way, pro­found in an­other: the lis­ten­ing is a par­tic­u­larly strik­ing point with its own sub­tlety. He also says that Henry V sac­ri­fices him­self and his per­son­al­ity in or­der to marry the French princess and that the ef­fect should come across “like peace be­tween the Is­raelis and the Pales­tini­ans”.

Whereas Henry VI, in his in­ef­fec­tu­al­ness and im­po­tent re­li­gios­ity, couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. “Henry VI,” van Hove says, “thinks peo­ple are good but for­gets to act. He be­comes the vic­tim of his ad­vis­ers’ con­trol and be­comes marginalised.”

And then there’s Richard III – un­like Henry VI, an ex­traor­di­nar­ily re­alised char­ac­ter. “Richard III just wants to be king, but once he’s got the crown, he’s to­tally bored. He can only reign, only live, only feel in or­der to have power.”

So what was it like open­ing Kings of War in New York the night be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, only to have the packed sea­son end a few days later with Trump firmly en­sconced?

“It was per­fect tim­ing,” he says, al­most wry. “We never in­tended the par­al­lel. Trump was not even a can­di­date at the stage when we first planned the show. You do it on stage some time later, and sud­denly it’s all

• about Trump.”

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