Edited by Susan Bennett and Sonia Massai
237 pp. London: Methuen Drama

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney*

This volume of essays and case studies of 30 important productions staged by Belgian-born director Ivo van Hove is as alive, informed and exciting as the theatrical visionary it flies after. Filled with evocative colour and black and white illustrations, interviews, reviews and assessments, it represents the work of a wide range of scholars and critics, and even offers a piece by the unfailingly provocative man himself. In sum, vivid reconstructions of productions we thought we knew.

Van Hove’s own Foreword, “My Life” appropriately sets the tone: “Plays are my life. My productions are autobiographies in disguise.” As an interpretive artist, he digs and probes: “The stage should not serve merely as a mirror but should give us access to what happens on the other side of the mirror.” The book’s first image is from his Roman Tragedies—done for the Stadsschouburg in Amsterdam in 2012—a night shot glaring with the lights of modern urban disaster from which flees an agonized Enobarbus. Even if you have never seen a van Hove production, you can know from this point you are in for an exciting ride.

Edited thoughtfully and thoroughly by Canadian theatre scholar Susan Bennett and British scholar Sonia Massai, the volume’s Introduction gives the necessary factual background. We learn that van Hove was born in Belgium in 1958, and that, while a directing student at university in Antwerp, he met Jan Versweyveld, his life partner and theatre collaborator ever since. It is Versweyveld who has been most responsible for creating the visual dramaturgy that works so well with the textual dramaturgy of van Hove’s productions. The volume effectively reveals the astonishing scope of their joint work, from classics to new creations, from operas to multi-genre events.

Among the many productions examined here is his Hedda Gabler, done for the National Theatre in London, in 2016. We listen to actors discuss character with van Hove who explores emotional situations through imagery, suggesting that Hedda “should die like a fish.” For Ruth Wilson, who played Hedda, van Hove’s deconstructions of text light up key moments. Because van Hove does not believe in fixed character, “everybody is anybody or can be anybody, if circumstances change.” This approach encouraged Wilson to play Hedda as a child, a friend, a lover and a wife. Van Hove himself argues that unlike, say, Sylvia Plath, Hedda is bereft of talent and fantasy. “There is nothing she could develop in order to escape this boredom. She’s addicted to material things and if she doesn’t get what she wants, she simply destroys.” For van Hove, Hedda’s great failure is her lack of imagination.

Van Hove ponders long and hard about his choice of text, which he regards as the toughest decision in his process and a completely intuitive one. A text may bother him for years and even be temporarily forgotten before he moves on it. Once production has started, “two parallel groups” begin working—one based in traditional dramaturgy and one based in the visual. He himself is the only one who moves between these two centres.

In his early work, van Hove more or less ignored original productions but has begun, as he puts it, to revisit these houses, looking with new eyes. For Hedda, he talks of starting with the set from previous productions and then during rehearsals taking things away. “It felt like cleaning up,” he says. “Today we don’t need all the exposition that is typical in an Ibsen play. . . . We created a twenty-first-century play, not a nineteenth-century one.” The actual dramaturg/writer in this case, Patrick Marber, recalls van Hove asking him to “write a script that could work for a modern-dress production in an almost empty space but that could, in theory, be performed in period costume on a realistic set,” without updating the text or using slang. The production study contrasts Michael Meyer’s 1960 translation to Marber’s, at the point when Tesman compares his own academic performance unfavourably with the ideas in his rival Lovborg. 

Tesman:  Amazing! I’d never think of writing about anything like that!
Hedda:  No. You wouldn’t.
Tesman:  I feel like a dinosaur.
Hedda: (bored) Yes, well.

In this production, Hedda is doused with tomato juice before her suicide. “That moment,” says Wilson, “must be read in the context of Ivo encouraging my Hedda to be . . . brutal, dangerous and cruel . . . so that when Hedda is on the receiving end, the brutality has to be equal . . . in order to push her over the edge.” The actress agrees that the nature and timing of that 2016 production spoke to the Trump era in which misogyny was (and still is) alive and well.

Skeletal scripts, bare bones scenography and lighting are all van Hove hallmarks, earning him the epithet of theatre’s most “maximal minimalist.” British dramaturg, Kate Bassett terms his Shakespeare productions “subcultural” raised to “bleak chic.” She describes his symbolic correlatives as the “emotional states and . . . ethos in which the play’s characters are caught.” Van Hove is here clearly a poet of the theatre inventing images such as a glass cabin for his Taming of the Shrew (done for the Stadsschouburg in Amsterdam, in 2008) through which prospective suitors can ogle Baptista’s daughter “like an Amsterdam prostitute. . . .” Cutting to essential meaning, van Hove’s instinct is to erase any period specificity of a classic, freeing it up for more contemporary relevance.

Roman Tragedies is his compilation of Shakespeare’s political histories. In it, van Hove uses multiple screens mixing film of the characters performing live with images of JFK and Trump, and the scrolling of Roman Empire headlines. His information overload is clearly politics-as-performance, an idea also used by Quebec’s Robert Lepage in his Coriolanus production at Canada’s Stratford Festival in 2018 (reviewed in Critical Stages 18). When the production played at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, critics spoke of analogies between Roman Tragedies and two American TV series, The Sopranos and House of Cards. The character of Richard III was “portrayed as an overgrown schoolboy, bursting out of his too-small blazer”—(“at first as laughable as Trump” but then morphing into a lethal monster of mendacity, his throne room becoming a war room, reminding us that past and present cannot escape one another.

In his staging of Greek tragedies such as Sophocles’ Antigone—done for the Grand Theatre de la Ville in Luxembourg, in 2015—van Hove strives for drama on an epic scale, “a ticking time bomb, a train that one knows will crash, yet . . . as slow as strangling by a boa constrictor.” He smashes through the classical unities here “to bring scenes onstage that would conventionally be played offstage or not exist at all,” highlighting how “scarred” and “deeply hurt” Antigone is. She appears in mourning—van Hove’s notion that “she is already mentally and emotionally dead before the play begins.” He shows her suicide, “the desperate but also serene loneliness of this ultimate action where she takes control of her own life.”

His work on American scripts provides some of the volume’s most penetrating studies as we follow his visions to their painful cores. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge done for London’s Young Vic in 2014 raises the question, “Can a Belgian director . . . really feel the trials and tribulations of a Brooklyn longshoreman?” The production answered with a resounding yes in powerful images of familial strangulation that climaxes “in their final moments together, desperately grasp[ing] each other in a primal and protective huddle as blood rained down upon them.”

His production of Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is described alternately as Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean power play, a chamber play. Divesting the realistic drama of its “Southern and period associations” to reveal “a parable for . . . rapacious capitalism of the twenty-first century and a digression on the continued subjection of women,” van Hove replaces stage realism with images, chunks of dialogue with “visual cues,” excavating the feral nature of a dysfunctional family.

For Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—done at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014—van Hove established a Peter Brookian empty space “in which the omnipresent theme of transitions between life and death would be possible” and in which David Bowie’s music evoked the feelings of  “a country in crisis with itself.”

For van Hove’s Broadway production of Miller’s The Crucible in 2016, he moves beyond the horrors and links of the Salem witch hunts and 1950s communism creating an event at once supernatural and contemporary that infects both the obvious victims of persecution and also those who judge them.

Reinforcing the creative scope of his theatrical imagination, van Hove’s opera work provides a fascinating study allowing for both hits and misses. In Verdi’s Macbeth for the Opera National of Lyon in 2012, he offers up “images of characters [who] meet . . . their deaths like ectoplasms,” visualizing that immortal line of mortality: “Life’s but a walking shadow.” In this Macbeth, the murderous king is left a vagrant on a park bench, the social outcast of his own mind. Tchaikovsky’s Mazzepa for the Komische Oper in Berlin, in 2013, created controversy because its videos of torture and brutality were thought by some to be a violation of the privacy of the victims.

Van Hove adapts his vision to the material at hand, no matter what the genre. His staging of Brokeback Mountain (Teatro Real of Madrid, in 2014) based on the Ang Lee film of 2005, which was itself taken from an Annie Proulx short story is a case in point. Proulx is a writer whose revelations of character with a single unexpected image are often as uncanny as van Hove’s. In this production though, as in conventional opera, it is distinctive voice types that do the major work of differentiating characters. Atypically, van Hove actually expands the story, physicalizing what had been mostly suggested in the earlier versions, to create domestic suffocation. The innate lyricism of the core male relationship is accomplished through video images of the Wyoming mountains, “a wild and dangerous place . . . of freedom for . . . these cowboys in love,” where, nevertheless, their emotional paralysis—strongly reinforced by an atonal score—continues.

The last section of the book deals largely with van Hove’s adaptations of film and fiction. P.A. Skantze speaks of the rich “sonic strata” of van Hove’s live staging of Bergman’s film, Scenes from a Marriage (done for the Staadsschouberg of Amsterdam in 2013). Here, all three couples “swirl about” simultaneously vocalizing and embodying moments from their individual marriages. Immersive and operatic, it offered “three arias in the air,”  “a chorus . . . with solos,” “a translation of sound into sense . . . a kind of spoken song.”

British scholar Julie Sanders’ discusses van Hove’s production of Obsession (done at London’s Barbican in 2017) illuminating the range of his imaginative processes. Obsession, she tells us, started its life as a 1934 crime novel called The Postman Always Rings Twice (set in Depression-era rural California) and, then, in 1943, was made it into the film Ossessione by Italian director Luchino Visconti, a precursor of Italian cinematic neo-realism. Three years later another film version appeared starring Lana Turner and, in 1981, yet another version was done with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. As Sanders points out, this teleology is an important indicator of van Hove’s associative rather than linear engagement with previous versions of the story.

The physicality of van Hove’s Obsession locates us in painter Edward Hopper’s territory: “a broad . . . palette of desolate individuals in landscapes of bars, diners and gas stations, the spatial co-ordinates of twentieth-century Modernism.” In this production, a water tub becomes the focal point for the physical body, whether connected to washing or sex. A naked husband is toweled down by his wife in full view of an unnerving young drifter. The tub is later used to wash off the evidence of the husband’s murder. Physicality is writ large with close-up projections of the lovers, images which voyeuristically implicate the audience itself in their crime of passion.

While it may be that van Hove leads the pack of innovative directors trying to replicate television, video and film in live performance, Sanders makes the careful distinction that he moves beyond simple imitation, into what she calls a “breaking” and “transcendence” of familiar forms. He challenges the medium in which he works, continuing to insist that the possibilities of theatre are limitless. 

*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian theatre and literary critic, as well as a widely-published poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel, One Man Dancing, based on the history of Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and contemporary dialogues called Orpheus in Our World, based on the earliest of Greek hymns. Keeney is a longtime Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Toronto’s York University.

Copyright © 2019 Patricia Keeney
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Ivo van Hove: From Shakespeare to David Bowie
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