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Interview: Ivo van Hove on Adapting Visconti’s The Damned for the Stage

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Interview: Ivo van Hove on Adapting Visconti’s The Damned for the Stage

Jan Versweyveld

There are no half measures with Ivo van Hove. Whether he’s revisiting modern classics like Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, or premiering David Bowie’s musical Lazarus, you can expect riveting—and in some instances controversial—theater fare from the Belgian-born director. So there’s great anticipation for his latest New York production: an epic staging of The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory, which runs from July 17 to 28.

The production, created for the Comédie-Française theater in Paris, premiered two summers ago at the Festival d’Avignon and is adapted from the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1969 film by Italian auteur Luchino Visconti. An operatic tale of decadence and greed, The Damned recounts the internecine struggles and disintegration of the powerful von Essenbeck family as they collude with the rising Nazi regime in 1930s Germany.

Hailed as a visionary, and sometimes dismissed as a provocateur, van Hove is currently in great demand in theater capitals across the globe. His upcoming international projects include the world-premiere stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, opening in September at the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, van Hove’s home-theater base; a new adaptation of All About Eve, set to premiere next February in London’s West End; and Électre/Oreste, a combination of two Euripides plays that will be presented next Summer at the ancient Epidaurus theater in Greece. And it’s just been announced that van Hove will helm a new interpretation of the classic American musical West Side Story, slated for Broadway at the end of next year.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with van Hove and talk about the experience of bringing new life to Visconti’s provocative The Damned.

What drew you in the first place to Visconti’s film?

The first thing that was important for me when I read the screenplay is that it talks about the venomous alliance between the industrial world and the political world—in this case the steel industry and the extreme right-wing Nazi regime. They need each other for some reason. And that’s the great shocking thing, because this family is based on the Krupps, the world-famous steel industry family. There’s a wonderful moment in the beginning where the patriarch says, “I hate this man”—he doesn’t even mention Hitler by name—“but for the good of the company, for the prosperity of our family we have to do this.” So that’s how people make alliances—things to think about.

As you know from my work, I like a big family story. So that’s the second reason. But this is also a terrible family. The mother has a very complicated relationship with her son; the son doesn’t feel loved by his mother. I call it a nest of vipers. Is that a good English word for it? There is no tenderness, or if there is, it’s manipulative. This is a family that’s everything you don’t want your family to be. They are the anti-family. At the same time, it was one of the most influential and powerful families in Europe at that time.

Then I discovered during my preparations, and even more during rehearsals, that there was also a story about two young men: The famous one is Martin [grandson of the patriarch], but there is also [his cousin] Günther. Günther wants to be an artist and play music and Martin just doesn’t know what he wants in his life. He’s searching and he wants some guidance; he has no parents taking care of him so he’s like an adolescent kicking around and making provocations. These two young people are totally in this minefield of politics and financial interests, which they couldn’t care less about; they are totally apolitical. And then you see, step by step, how these two young people develop into Nazis. They turn into destroyers—people who are going to destroy other people. Even if they think the Nazis are going to change the world, these two join the Nazis purely for personal reasons. One does it for revenge on his mother and the other to avenge the killing of his father.

Was it difficult to recreate that period of German history?

I not only hesitated but refused to bring Nazis on stage [before this] because it is so difficult. Nazi ideology is the most terrible you can imagine so I don’t want to make fun of it; I don’t want to make it kind of a freak show. I wanted to have a “Heil Hitler!” moment that really frightened me and gave me goosebumps. I think we found a theatrical solution to do that. But when I read the story, I think it was much more. It almost becomes emblematic for what is still going on. We must not forget people really believed that this was a change for the better and Hitler was democratically elected. The people of Germany at that moment wanted him. Of course, he used them all for his goals, which was the exclusion of a lot of people.

There’s a chilling line in The Damned where an SS officer talks about channeling the young man’s hate.

Yes, obviously the Nazis use Günther. I thought about the system of radicalization. You see that a lot now. You see that these young people are used because they have a frustration against society. They have a grudge against society because they don’t feel accepted, they don’t feel assimilated, and they have a hard time finding the right education and finding a great job. These things are connected. A lot of ideologies feed on this frustration.

Does it feel like The Damned has become very timely?

More timely now, I dare to say it. Visconti was a visionary you can say, but in his time it was more like looking back to a period. Now we are living in it.

In recent years you’ve adapted many film scripts for the stage. What is it that attracts you to the movies?

When I do a movie on stage I do an adaptation of the movie script, not of the movie. In this case I didn’t see the movie again. I saw it when I was young, and of course there are many images that are so strong in your mind. You can’t avoid them. But for me, it was very easy when I read the script to find my own aesthetics. If I don’t feel that immediately then I don’t do it. Because it makes no sense to repeat the aesthetics of a movie that has been made already.

Is it difficult working with a text that wasn’t intended for the stage?

One of the reasons why I started doing movie scripts on stage is because of the themes. And when you do a movie script on stage, most of the time it’s a world premiere. It’s as if you are doing Hamlet for the first time. That is for me a huge challenge: how to invent the theatrical world for this material. It pushes me further in my thinking about theater.

You seem to be a fan of Visconti. You previously adapted three other of his movie scripts: Rocco and His Brothers, Obsession, and Ludwig.

I was a movie freak when I was young. Actually, I didn’t go to the theater because I didn’t have much money. Movies were cheap, and I lived around the corner from a movie theater, so I went to the movies three or four times a week. I’m a child of the ’70s, and so I lived in the great times of American directors like Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola. Also, Italian movies were at a very high level as well as French movies. Then, German movies were just emerging. This was also a time when it was very normal for a theater director to be an opera director and a movie director. Fassbinder did it, Bergman did it, and later on Patrice Chéreau. And, of course, Visconti did it. His movies are like huge canvasses of cruelties of humanity, of cravings of humanity, of despair. As I said, I love family dramas, but not in itself. It has to be telling something about the world: the family as a kind of metaphor for the world. This is something Visconti always found in most of his movies. He has these very personal stories about very recognizable people against the bigger cosmos. He didn’t make very many movies, but every movie that he made dealt with something really specific and was different from the other. He was very much politically engaged.

Would you say there’s also a Shakespearean element to The Damned?

Visconti was a big classicist. The Oresteia is clearly there, a family drama with someone who is killed. Then there’s Macbeth. At a certain moment, this woman marries her lover. He’s not the normal successor, but he’s pushed by her into the kingdom [to become the head of the firm]. There’s a sexual energy between them that pushes them toward evil. That’s justified for total victory and for power—actually not to do anything with that power but just to own it. It’s a great script, really very well written.

Will the staging at the Park Avenue Armory be different from the original that you staged at Avignon two years ago?

It will be close to the original. We opened at the Festival d’Avignon at the Pope’s Palace, which is a huge space, about the size of three Broadway theaters. We have the same width at the Armory. The Pope’s Palace is open air and seats 2000 people. It’s a hard space. I had seen many productions there, so I knew what I had to do and also what not to do. We will have the same feeling here in New York. The Armory does productions that come alive in that space; the space has to give something extra. The Damned is a big production with a lot of actors on stage and it’s very interactive with video and music. The set is more like an installation. When you first see it, the set doesn’t mean anything, but when you start using it—it starts to mean everything. For us, the whole production is always what we call the ritual of evil—so there are a lot of ritualistic moments. This family starts killing each other, and they are killed by the Nazis. A lot of people get killed.

What was the biggest challenge you faced with this production?

To make all these rich themes in The Damned come alive and be visible, and hopefully to create something that also moves people. It’s not about making a historical document—the ending is a very specific thing that’s not in the movie. I won’t say too much more.

The Damned runs from July 17—28 at the Park Avenue Armory.