In the course of his four-decade career, the Belgian director Ivo van Hove has created more than 100 productions of theater, opera, and movies throughout the world, with more of them in New York City than all other “continental directors combined,” according to Ivo van Hove: From Shakespeare to David Bowie (Methuen Drama, 237 pages) a book of some three dozen short essays, each about specific van Hove productions, written by some two dozen theater scholars and artists.
Van Hove’s most recent New York production, West Side Story, which opened last night at the Broadway Theater, is his fourth on Broadway; the others have been his stage adaptation of the movie “Network,” plus his interpretations of two by Arthur Miller, “The Crucible,” and “A View from the Bridge“ which marked his Broadway debut in 2015. But van Hove has been bringing his norm-breaking – and video-making – to Off-Broadway for almost a quarter of a century, primarily at New York Theatre Workshop. I’ve seen about a dozen of them. Some, like Scenes from a Marriage at NYTW in 2014, and The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory in 2018, I’ve found astonishing. Others, like his Dutch-language production of Angels in America in 2014 and The One Who Disappeared in 2019, both at BAM, felt partially tone-deaf or inaccessible.
This book, one of four published about the director in 2018 (two of them in Dutch), helps give perspective on some of the recurring themes, techniques and patterns in van Hove’s work. There is even something of a Rosebud clue to his approach in his two-page foreword to the collection. “My productions are autobiographies in disguise,” he writes. Born in 1958, the son of the sole pharmacist in his hometown in Belgium, van Hove was sent to a boarding school at age 11. He signed up with the theater students that met Wednesday afternoons “to create a show which we would then present to the outside world at the end of the school year.” What he discovered was that theater was a great way to resist the school’s strict rules. “I found that I could express something of myself by working in that gray area between what is allowed and what is not allowed.” He has been exploring what’s not allowed in theater ever since.
In 1980, at the age of 22, while studying at Antwerp to be a director, he met Jan Versweyveld, who was in art school. Although there is nothing remotely romantic in the account of their meeting — this is an academic book after all, not even a biography — it seems obvious that theirs is a great love affair, certainly a consequential one. They have been life partners and collaborators ever since. It doesn’t feel too much of a stretch to credit their relationship for van Hove’s unusually visual approach to directing.
For every production, we’re told, the director assembles two separate teams – one for “dramaturgy,” the other for “visual dramaturgy,” which consists of him, his scenic and lighting designer (almost always Versweyveld) and his video designer (usually Tal Yarden.)
“Video is an extra element that the twentieth century gave us and it needs to be used carefully,” van Hove explains in an interview in the book. “We use it to bring the emotional life of the characters closer to the audience, but not to beautify the production or just to create effects…We also use video to show moments that could not otherwise be staged…”
Not every show they do uses video, but when they decide to do so, Versweyveld adds, “video is integral to the design from the very beginning.”
What’s on the outside arguably interests van Hove more. The actress Ruth Wilson, who starred in van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler, observes: “I feel that most of Ivo’s direction is physical rather than emotional and that his style of acting helps actors explore their emotions freely. So Ivo would tell me ‘Right now staple the flowers to the walls’….If one of us asked why, Ivo would answer ‘I don’t psychologize.”
One of the five sections of the book focuses on American theater, exploring several New York productions that reflect the director’s tendency to (as they might say it) strip the action to the elemental or (as I might see it) make the play look abstractly contemporary no matter when or where the play is explicitly set. In his 2010 production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” at New York Theatre Workshop, he replaced the usual period costumes with “clingy, sleek costumes” that made them more “exposed and vulnerable,” thus turning the play as much about the subjection of women as it is about greed. As Professor S.W. Abbotson observes, van Hove took “a scalpel to the script with the precision of a neurosurgeon…Hellman’s missing dialogue was replaced with gesture, evocative sound and light, and other visual cues that more than helped carry its meaning and elevate it to a new and relevant commentary on our contemporary world.”
Prof. Emile Schra (who is writing another book about van Hove) details van Hove’s “stripped-down” version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. “The big challenge for van Hove and Versweyveld has been to make this very complex play with its ingenious structure as simple as possible for the audience.” After bandying about several ideas, they decided “they wanted a space where transition was ultimately possible. And what served this objective better than an empty space?” Kushner is quoted elsewhere in the book as observing that van Hove’s production “was very much about the frailty and fragility of the human body.”
“Ivo van Hoven: From Shakespeare to David Bowie” ends with editor Susan Bennett’s account of Bowie’s ‘Lazarus” in both New York and London:
“Lazarus bore all the hallmarks of a van Hove production — a sparse but potent scene and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld, extraordinary and poetic video work by Tal Yarden, dynamic acting performances….and the director’s own ability to conjure breathtaking images from an intricate interweaving of all production elements.”