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Friday, August 12, 2016

Tragedy, Power, and Catharsis: Ivo van Hove's Theatrical Humanism

Ivo van Hove's Kings of War. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
By Christian Barclay

For director Ivo van Hove, 2015-16 was a banner theater season. He made his Broadway debut in late 2015 with a hyper-minimalist staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, cementing his status as one of contemporary theater’s most distinctive directorial voices. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote: “This must be what Greek tragedy once felt like, when people went to the theater in search of catharsis.” Van Hove soon followed with Lazarus, at New York Theater Workshop, a collaboration with Irish playwright Enda Walsh and David Bowie, and The Crucible, also a hit on Broadway, with an ensemble cast including Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw. Call it a coincidence of good timing; the Belgian director was now suddenly a formidable presence in the theater capturing the notice of even the most casual theatergoers.

At BAM, Van Hove’s intuitive, visionary approach to theater has now struck five times over just the past eight years (with all but one of the productions staged with his Dutch company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam). While certainly diverse in scope, from minimalist reimaginings of classic texts to wholly original screen-to-stage adaptations, all of Van Hove’s work could be said to proffer an acute examination of human behavior.

His auspicious BAM debut was with Opening Night (2008 Next Wave), an adaptation of John Cassavetes’ wrenching 1977 film about an aging actress (played unforgettably by Gena Rowlands), rehearsing for a new play. Van Hove’s inventive production—involving an onstage camera crew whose closeups of the action were projected onto a large overhead screen in real time—served to heighten the emotional turmoil. Just a few years later, he returned with another screen adaptation, this time Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing 1972 film Cries and Whispers (2011 Next Wave), chronicling the final hours of a fatally ill woman.

Chris Nietvelt as Agnes in Cries and Whispers. Photo: Richard Termine

The following year, Van Hove transformed the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House into a maximalist, modern-day Roman amphitheater with Roman Tragedies (2012 Next Wave). This six-hour, no-intermission contemporary melding of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus explored the power dynamics between politicians and the public, with screens everywhere featuring real-time updates and footage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Audiences were free to roam about the theater and encouraged to join the action onstage. Van Hove followed this with a five-hour adaptation of Tony Kushner’s two-part 80s AIDS epic Angels in America (2014 Next Wave). In stark contrast to Roman Tragedies, this devastating, stripped-down production comprised little more than a saline drip, some fluorescent lights, and a haunting David Bowie soundtrack. And for a third consecutive year, Van Hove returned to BAM, this time with the Greek masterpiece Antigone (2015 Next Wave), featuring Juliette Binoche in the lead role, plumbing the depths for new insights into a crisis in conscience.

On the surface Van Hove might appear to operate in extremes, but time and again his work reflects a deep analysis of the text and an innate ability to distill the underlying humanity and central conflict at play. He is fascinated by human relationships in the context of great social upheaval: war, betrayal, death, and disease. His use of technology and media manipulates the concepts of public and private space, offering the audience multiple prisms through which to view the story and its characters. And he encourages his actors to take extraordinary liberties, aiming for performances that he characterizes as “naked-soul acting.” Emotions that are usually left to simmer beneath the surface become alarmingly and unavoidably apparent.

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