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Ivo Van Hove (#110 of 6)

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

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

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.

Scenes from the Elemental Antigone at BAM

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Scenes from the Elemental: Antigone at BAM

Jan Versweyveld

Scenes from the Elemental: Antigone at BAM

Sitting through a production of Antigone can be agony—especially when it’s good. There’s a tale of fratricide at the top, and news of suicide after suicide after suicide for the finale. The events in between—dominated by grieving, geschrei-ing, and debating—can also be grueling, which is entirely on point. From Aristotle and straight through the ages, extreme emotions on stage have been described as a purgative, overwhelming an audience member’s psyche and then rebooting it to a long-lost balance.

At BAM, high prospects for catharsis are tied to the pedigree of both the Sophocles play and the new production’s director, international phenom Ivo Van Hove. His version of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, seen off-Broadway last season, moved the audience from living room to bedroom to surreal head space to get us up close and personal with the truth that no one can hate like a life-long love. His Angels in America made a scarifying void of the near-empty BAM Harvey Theater stage, spurring the characters to cling to and repel each other in an exultant dance of death and life. And his West End revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge, which transfers to Broadway this month, proves the play, more than maybe any other in the modern era, deserves comparison to Greek tragedies like Antigone.

Ivo van Hove on Directing Scenes from a Marriage and Angels in America

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Ivo van Hove on Directing Scenes from a Marriage and Angels in America
Ivo van Hove on Directing Scenes from a Marriage and Angels in America

Theater director Ivo van Hove has made a habit of breaching borders. Born in Belgium, he currently runs the internationally renowned Toneelgroep Amsterdam in the Netherlands and also brings his work to New York with welcome regularity. More significantly, van Hove makes an art of erasing the barrier not only between actor and audience, but also between one scene and another.

During the presidential 2012 election, his epochal production Roman Tragedies, which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, ran for nearly six hours without any breaks. Van Hove edited Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra to focus both the text and the theatrical experience on the relationship between politicians and the public. Audiences were encouraged to come and go where and when they pleased—even up onto the stage. The production became an exhilarating and indelible exercise in democracy, mounted by one of the reigning auteurs in global theater.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s La Voix Humaine

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Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s <em>La Voix Humaine</em>
Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s <em>La Voix Humaine</em>

’Tis the season for surreal culture shock. First it was the fried balls. Forget popcorn and potato chips; from bitterballen to oliebollen, unless it’s round and fried, it ain’t a snack here in Holland. Then it was Sinterklaas—or, more precisely, his helper Zwarte Piet (best explained by David Sedaris in an essay for Esquire a few years back). Suffice to say, the sight of towheaded tots trotting down the street in blackface can make even a seen-it-all New Yorker like me gawk. And now: Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, a French play performed in Dutch with English surtitles projected perfectly center-stage above the action. (Interestingly, five days before I attended the show at the spectacular, castle-like Stadsschouwburg, Spike Lee held a discussion/book promotion at the theater. Alas, I heard he didn’t have much to say about Zwarte Piet.)

But I have quite a bit to say about La Voix Humaine, a one-woman show starring the luminous Halina Reijn (who also stars in the company’s Children of the Sun as the invalid Lisa) as an alternately determined and desperate mistress who is trying to break up once and for all with her lover over the phone. While Michael Shannon and his headset may have New York audiences in stitches in Mistakes Were Made, Ms. Reijn and her regular old receiver (or “terrible weapon” as she refers to it at one point) drag Amsterdam theatergoers through a nonstop, emotional tight-wire act for nearly an hour.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Children of the Sun

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Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s <em>Children of the Sun</em>
Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s <em>Children of the Sun</em>

Belgian theater and opera director Ivo van Hove—a familiar name to those who get their Off Broadway fix at BAM and New York Theatre Workshop—has been the artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands’s largest rep company, for close to a decade, and it shows in his latest self-assured production, Kinderen van de Zon. For those of you who don’t speak Dutch (and I don’t so I had to catch a performance that included English “surtitles” projected a tad too high above centerstage), the title translates to Children of the Sun, Maxim Gorki’s timeless classic about the intelligentsia’s doomed disconnect—and retreat from—the realities of the common man. (Yup, I am now going to review in English a Russian play done in Dutch. Take that, NYC theater critics back home!)

The Little Foxes at New York Theatre Workshop

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The Little Foxes at New York Theatre Workshop

The New York Theatre Workshop

The Little Foxes at New York Theatre Workshop

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of provocateur Ivo van Hove’s slick remounting of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is that it really isn’t that shocking. The man who allowed Hedda Gabler to be humiliated by a flood of tomato juice and employed a hot dog and Hershey’s syrup to illuminate The Misanthrope turns almost cuddly in comparison this time around. Sure, a woman gets dramatically socked in the gut three times in a row and another dry humps a wall, but the closest it gets to beverages and condiments is a mimed sip of good ’ol Southern java. This would seem to be a criticism, and even though this critic truly craved some of van Hove’s signature eyebrow-raisers (it’s a melodrama, guy!), it’s quickly discerned that Hellman’s stinging indictment of a plantation-owning family’s greed (”[The] people who raped the Earth, and those who stood around and watched them do it”) really needs no trickery at all to remain a grabber.