Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 18 July 2019

A sense of not belonging

As Ivo van Hove, one of the world's most sought-after directors, prepares to bring a stripped-back Hedda Gabler to Dublin, he tells us how he found much contemporary relevance in Ibsen's classic

Not a minute to lose: Van Hove built his reputation on deconstructing classic plays. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Not a minute to lose: Van Hove built his reputation on deconstructing classic plays. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Joanne Hayden

If he ever fancied a second career, theatre director Ivo van Hove could give lectures in time management. Our phone interview is rescheduled more than once and when we eventually get to speak, he tells me he's in the airport, on his way to check in. I'm taken aback, and wary of competing with PA systems and background noise, but I'm also impressed by the level of van Hove's multitasking; in his world, every minute of every day is maximised.

And when he begins to talk about the National Theatre's production of Hedda Gabler, which is coming to Dublin's Gaiety Theatre in March, I'm even more impressed by how clearly he can focus in the midst of the airport thrum. He's used to it, of course; his life is a juggling act and he thrives on being in flux.

"I love to move on. I love to change," he says. "I love the illusion that life is changing the whole time. Like a snake, you lose your skin and you get a new one. You're still the same animal."

One of the most sought-after theatre directors at work today, van Hove has built his reputation on deconstructing classic plays. Originally from Belgium, he has been director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam - the Netherlands' largest repertory company - for 17 years. His life partner, Jan Versweyveld, is the company's scenographer and lighting designer. Peripatetic though van Hove is, Toneelgroep is his home.

"I'm so blessed," he says. "It's my laboratory, to invent things."

In the mornings, no matter where he is in the world, he runs the company. There are lots of telephone calls and Skype meetings. He balances his Toneelgroep work with multiple international projects. In America, he was once known as a bad-boy avant gardist. When he did A Streetcar Named Desire at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1999, the lead actors were, at various points, stripped as naked as the text.

Back then his career trajectory might have seemed unlikely, but in 2015 he made his Broadway debut with A View From the Bridge and collaborated with David Bowie and Enda Walsh to make the musical Lazarus, one of Bowie's last works.

His primary relationship is always with the text. He has to "fall in love" with a text before he can direct it. When he re-read Hedda Gabler many years ago, he was "totally intrigued by this woman who has everything".

"She has luxury, she has a husband with a good job, she has the house that she wanted," he says. "She's descended from a very rich family, and at the same time she cannot be happy. So what is this mystery about happiness?"

The character of Hedda, a narcissistic, lethally manipulative aesthete, has fascinated and perplexed audiences since the play premièred in 1891. Like Nora in A Doll's House - Ibsen's other classic, and a more straightforward depiction of the oppression of women - Hedda Gabler is a seminal role and is played by Lizzy Watts in the National Theatre's touring production. This is van Hove's third time directing the play - in his mind, "one of the biggest that was ever written".

"If you're a director, there's some things you need to do," he says. "Shakespeare, the Greeks, Chekhov, and Ibsen, of course."

He believes that Hedda Gabler is often misunderstood. The more he examined the text, the more conclusions he reached about Hedda's nature and the nature of her death - after she destroys some of those around her, she destroys herself.

"I discovered that the suicide which she commits at the end is already within her for her whole life," he says. "So it's not that the men oppress her, or society oppresses her. That's also true. It's clear that it's a time where women stay home."

Suicide, he says, is a timeless theme. "The mystery of suicide and the mystery of life and death. Why should you live if you know that you're going to die? If you know that, why live? What makes life meaningful? And that's what Hedda doesn't find. She doesn't find the real meaning in her life."

He situates the play - a new version written by Patrick Marber - in a cosmopolitan city. "This urban loneliness, this urban feel of displacement, of not belonging, of not having real ties, trying to connect to the world but not having the opportunities really to deeply do that, to deeply connect, I think that's very much a story of today," he says.

He tries to read every play as a contemporary play, as if it has never been performed before. "Then you're reading with open eyes and an open mind. That's what I try to do, be open-minded towards a text."

The New York Times critic Ben Brantley once called van Hove a "maximalist minimalist" - referring to his preference for stripped-down design as well as his way of going to the core of the text in order to maximise the scope of a production. "Critics, as people, like to give labels. I got a lot of them over my whole career," he says. But he likes maximalist minimalist.

"In the simplicity of these two words you can categorise every production that I've made... just to please the audience with luxurious sets or lights that flash, that doesn't interest me at all. It's always functional what I try to do."

He has a reputation for not spending a lot of time rehearsing but that's a myth, he tells me.

"It's just my days are shorter. I don't like sitting around, all these breaks all day, an hour lunch, half an hour there, little tea break there. I try to do one long rehearsal. I start at 11, go to 4. Just a short break, 20 minutes, for a quick lunch so I like to stay focused... it's my temperament, you know."

His commitment to excellence includes not wasting time, which is why, disconcerting though it is, he has slotted our interview into his walk to the check-in desk.

"In one day to do artistic work, to do management work, to do organising work, to talk to people, networking, I love the diversity of that life," he says. "To do only one thing, I think at this moment, I'm a little bit too hungry for everything."

Hedda Gabler is at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre from March 6-10


More Stately Mansions (1997)

Van Hove's stylised deconstruction of Eugene O'Neill's unfinished play divided critics and audiences but won an Obie Award, one of the highest honours for an off-Broadway show. Three-and-a-half hours long, the production with made intense physical demands on its cast - the actors' battle scars included bruises and a bandaged ankle

Scenes From a Marriage (2013)

As with More Stately Mansions, van Hove staged Scenes from a Marriage (adapted from Ingmar Bergman's 1973 miniseries) with Toneelgroep in Amsterdam before directing it again with the New York Theatre Workshop. Three sets of actors played the husband and wife, and the audience moved through different spaces, eavesdropping on the couple's most intimate moments.

The Fountainhead (2014)

While some wondered if the 1943 novel by Ayn Rand - beloved by neoconservatives - should be resurrected at all, van Hove's Toneelgroep production was positively received.

A View From the Bridge (2014)

Van Hove's production originally premièred at the Young Vic, later transferring to the West End and Broadway. The director and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, dispensed with Arthur Miller's famously detailed stage directions, setting the play on a bare stage. It won three Olivier Awards in the UK and two Tony Awards in the US.

Kings of War (2015)

A conflation of Shakespeare's Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III, Toneelgroep's Kings of War was a four-and-a-half-hour epic. "I am constantly thinking about the way in which leaders approach power and decision-making..." van Hove said of the production.

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