When the Belgian director Ivo van Hove occasionally hosts an acting workshop, he asks every performer to tell him the same words: “I love you.” By and large in the theatre, these are words that directors like to hear. But Van Hove, who runs Toneelgroep Amsterdam and is one of the most sought-after directors in the world, is not asking to be adored. He is looking for variation.
“You can have 30 different intentions with just three words,” he says. “And much more than that.” It’s a simple but effective point: with altered emphasis, stress, intonation or intention, the phrase will carry infinite different meanings, some subtle and refined, others blunt or passionate.
And so it is with the plays Van Hove stages in Amsterdam, or London, or Paris, or New York, or anywhere: usually well-worn classic texts that have been stripped down, laid bare and reconsidered to yield bracingly fresh meanings, all the while seeming somehow truer to themselves.
“The so-called objectivity of the text is a stupid idea,” he tells me. “You always have to give an interpretation of the text, and that means that there is an artistic freedom for the director, the actors, also the scenographer. You have to interpret what’s on the paper.”
Over a 35-year career, Van Hove's interpretations have resulted in some extraordinary theatre. A 2008 production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America stripped the "gay fantasia" of the original into something more brutally affecting. A six-hour Shakespearean cycle of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was presented in 2007 as Roman Tragedies, a multimedia-addled modern political drama in which audiences could inhabit the set and scrutinise the actors.
Two years ago his London production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, bold and barefoot, peeled away the author's heavy-handedness to reveal a stunningly raw, elemental tragedy. Last year he collaborated with David Bowie and Enda Walsh to make Lazarus, the Broadway show that served as the musician's cryptic swansong. His production of The Crucible, currently on Broadway with Ben Whishaw, Saoirse Ronan and Ciarán Hinds, has also been rapturously well received. Everybody, it seems, loves Ivo.
It is almost surprising, when I call for our interview, to find Van Hove at rest. “I’m in Amsterdam today. Home!” he says, with an air of pleasant surprise. “I’m a cosmopolitan in the old-fashioned way. I can easily adapt to different circumstances in different cities, it seems to be. Of course, home is also being together with Jan [Versweyveld, his partner and the scenographer with whom he has worked on every production for 36 years], and we are everywhere together, of course. He is my real home.”
Home, however, is not a stable idea in either Van Hove's professional life or in Song from Far Away, one of Toneelgroep's more modest shows, which now arrives to the Galway International Arts Festival. The solo piece, written by the acclaimed English writer Simon Stephens, finds a Dutch banker alone and adrift in New York. "He is a kind of emotional lump, you could say." When the character's brother dies, he must journey back to Amsterdam reluctantly for the funeral. "And when he goes back, he reinvents his heart. Suddenly his heart starts beating again."
Van Hove (57) makes transitions with an approach of brisk efficiency. As the director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, he possesses something most directors would marvel at: a permanent ensemble and the resources to develop work over long periods of time. Instead, Van Hove employs the same methods that the same theatre makers usually complain about: short rehearsal times, spontaneous problem-solving, a race against the clock.
“Now, when I’m working with the Comédie-Francaise, I do one reading: an introduction to the world of the play that Jan and me and the team has invented. The next day we start with scene one. No discussion. I think theatre is still the world of actors playing, and, within that, problems get easily solved a lot of the time.”
It's a brave method: A View from the Bridge, which Versweyveld and Van Hove now consider their best work, was rehearsed in under four weeks. Even Toneelgroep's Kings of War, the company's most recent Shakespeare cycle of five history plays – Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III – took just seven weeks to finish.
Like many of Van Hove's innovations, one requirement for his cast is as nerveless as it is revealing: every actor must have their lines learned before day one. Nobody rehearses with a script in hand. That must have been daunting for Saoirse Ronan, in her first ever stage role as The Crucible's Abigail Williams.
“That was amazing,” Van Hove says of Ronan. “She comes, of course, from a theatre family. After two days’ rehearsal, I told her it was as if she was born in the theatre.”
With Toneelgroep, Van Hove has actors who will do anything for him: stories of his demands on their physical performances are legendary. “The spirit in an ensemble is a great help. Because you know each other very well, you push each other also. Because there is a confidence, you feel secure with one another. You feel there is nothing to lose. If you fail in a rehearsal room, nobody will blame you for it.
“I always call Toneelgroep Amsterdam my big laboratory. We try to invent a new way of theatre for large audiences. A theatre that doesn’t want to please the audience, but to have them emotionally and intellectually involved.”
In conversation Van Hove can sound like an enthusiastic professor, confident in the audience’s appetite for daring work (“People are much further ahead than most producers think”), excoriating about “lazy” directors whose stagings leave plays more or less as they found them. He takes pleasure in his ferocious work rate and contentment in the results: “I’m happy. And when I’m happy I’m relaxed; I make my best work.” He notes, with satisfaction, that the American press once labelled him the “Belgian bad boy avant-gardeist”, adding that now, without any compromise, his productions reach a huge audience. “I’ve enjoyed every second of it.”
Another label he has enjoyed, coined by the New York Times critic Ben Brantley, is that of "maximalist minimalist", to describe a forensic director who works on a vast scale. "That's really me," he agrees. "It seems to be minimalism, but it's also maximalism." Like his beautifully simple production of La Voix Humaine, which visited Dublin in 2011, the works that Van Hove's Irish audiences may encounter are minimally maximal, something that Van Hove, a pharmacist's son, compares to seeing his father at work on a slim set of weighing scales. "He used milligrams, not kilograms. My big chunky productions are kilos, and I discovered that I had a lot of joy in working, like my father, with milligrams."
Whatever the scale, for Van Hove to decide on doing a project, he must first fall in love with it. "You never know when it will happen," he says. In his 20s, Van Hove proudly proclaimed his contempt for American classics on Flemish TV. "Now I'm famous for my interpretations of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill," he says laughing. "But when you're 40 years old, you're a different man than when you're 20. For me, I live in my theatre. I express who I am, what I think, in my theatre. And that changes all the time. The falling in love changes also."
It’s a minimal idea with a maximal payoff, like the countless ways to say “I love you”.
- Song from Far Away runs July 12th-17th at the Town Hall Theatre as part of Galway International Arts Festival