Director Ivo van Hove is a titan of contemporary theatre, winning both critical and popular acclaim with works that bring classic texts into vivid contemporary focus. By Jana Perković.

Director Ivo van Hove

Greyscale image of a middle-aged man with grey hair and piercing eyes.
Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove.
Credit: Jan Versweyveld

Ivo van Hove may be the greatest living theatre director.

I am weighing up this possibility as I prepare to meet him. It is certainly an unverifiable claim – art is not sport, there are no international rankings. On the other hand, by every objective measure, van Hove’s career is at its zenith. Award-winning actors line up to appear in his productions: Jude Law in Obsession, Gillian Anderson in All About Eve, Juliette Binoche in Antigone, Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge, Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible. He has collected every accolade available, including two Oliviers, two Tonys, two Obies, a smattering of lifetime achievement awards, the Order of Arts and Letters in France and an Order of the Crown in Belgium.

As artistic director, van Hove transformed Toneelgroep Amsterdam into an internationally touring powerhouse, renamed Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA). He regularly sells out Adelaide Festival and the Festival d’Avignon; he also sells out West End and Broadway. This month he is premiering two operas: one in Amsterdam and another at The Met. ITA repertoire productions are playing in Amsterdam and Antwerp. His English-language adaptation of A Little Life recently finished its West End run and the filmed version hit cinemas across the globe on September 28. He has two shows in Paris: a Mozart and a Bergman double.

Van Hove is that rarest of theatremakers, able to command both huge audiences and critical acclaim. With four Broadway shows under his belt, he is starting to rival Peter Brook. In 2015 van Hove was invited to direct Lazarus, David Bowie’s stage musical that would become the singer’s last work. When Bowie knocks on your door, certainly you have unlocked a whole new level of theatre stardom. “It was one of the big experiences of my life,” he says. “He was one of my idols. His stories, songs, felt like the stories of my life when I was an adolescent. He inspired me. And then he turned out to be the nicest man in the world.”

In the flesh, van Hove is quietly self-possessed, softly spoken and precise. He is very articulate, but I get a strong impression of someone who listens more than he speaks. His Amsterdam home office is meticulously neat. The notes to every production he has ever made are contained in an orderly set of black notebooks.

Van Hove smiles like a sphinx when I ask him about his world dominance of theatre. “I am really a team worker,” he tells me. His name may attract attention, he says, but there has been a team of steady collaborators around him: notably Jan Versweyveld, his set designer and romantic partner of more than 40 years, cinematographer Tal Yarden, costume designer An D’Huys and the actors of ITA. “I love to develop work with the same team over a long period of time,” he says. “That is, I think, part of our success.”

While most international theatre directors work on a fly-in fly-out model, van Hove long commanded his own theatre house, with a 22-strong actor ensemble. He left at the beginning of September to focus on his international career and the artistic directorship of Ruhrtriennale arts festival in Germany. “When you make productions again and again and again with the same team, you become much more critical towards each other – in a good way,” he says. “You know each other so well; you know when somebody is making something that’s not so good. It goes both ways: they will challenge me too.” He pauses. “And that is good for art. That you’re challenged. That you don’t take things for granted.”

Van Hove is known for his lengthy preparation. He works on two tracks: with his dramaturg he researches and adapts the text, while the design team develops “the visual story”. By the time rehearsals start, van Hove knows the play inside out. “Sometimes directors say to me: ‘Well, I was a little bit disappointed when I did the production, the text wasn’t actually that good…’ And I think, Well, then you should have read it a little bit better before you decided to do it! Because, you know, it costs a lot of money to set up a theatre production. You should better know why you want to do it.”

Working this way has made van Hove extraordinarily efficient. He typically rehearses for three weeks only, strictly 11am to 4pm, off-book and in full tech, on set and in costume. The actors rehearse scenes in order and when they reach the end of the play, the production is ready to open. Actors from outside ITA can experience this process as either terrifying or liberating. Juliette Binoche called it “raw, and very, very frightening”. Elizabeth Marvel compared working with van Hove to leaving planet Earth. (“I remember Neil Armstrong talking about how it took him a very long time to reassimilate – he [now] knew there was this whole other realm.”)

Van Hove doesn’t want to complicate our understanding of the classics: rather, he seeks to distil the essence of the text. Though his liberties have earnt him the moniker “the bad boy of experimental theatre”, he objects to being called provocative or iconoclastic. He is, he says, meticulous about the text. “When I read a play, I always consider it as if it was written yesterday, as if nobody has done it before. I try to look at it pure.” Halina Reijn, an actor at ITA, compares him to a surgeon.

He prefers critic Ben Brantley’s designation of him as a “maximalist minimalist”, which may be another way of saying his sets can look like giant Prada shop windows. There is a look. It is slick, sharp, and travels well. “I don’t make work only for my colleagues or for the in-crowd,” he says. “Even when I was very young, working on a much smaller scale, it was important to me that we make work that people can see. I’m very proud of myself for proving that very daring work can have a huge audience.”

His influence clearly shows in the work of the younger generation of directors such as Sam Gold, Robert Icke and Australian Simon Stone, who has directed a number of plays for ITA on van Hove’s invitation. “We actually introduced him to Europe,” he says. “I consider him a huge talent.”

Some of the finest theatre directors have a gift of invisibility. They know how to make themselves disappear behind the art, and the art disappear behind its own point – so all that remains on stage is a mirror turned back at us. In 2016, I saw Ivo van Hove’s ITA at the Ruhrtriennale, premiering Things That Pass, an adaptation of a novel by Louis Couperus. In the year of Brexit, the play appeared urgent and uniquely explanatory – remarkable considering it was a faithful adaptation of a 1918 novel.

Van Hove’s transformation from a European theatre auteur to a mainstream superstar happened gradually, then suddenly. In 2007, he attracted attention on the international festival circuit when he spliced Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra into a six-hour participatory marathon of Roman politics, Roman Tragedies. International media, though, still described him as “Eurotrash”, a “Belgian tinkerer with plays”. Then, in 2014, his production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for Young Vic in London was nominated for seven Oliviers, won three, and transferred to the West End. In 2015 came Lazarus. By 2016, van Hove had sold out productions in both the West End and on Broadway.

Van Hove grew up in Kwaadmechelen in northern Belgium, a village of “2000 farmers and people who work in a coalmine”. His father was the (not “a”) pharmacist, which amounted to being upper-class. He was sent to boarding school at 11 and discovered theatre. His parents insisted on a law degree. He enrolled but quit in third year, switched to theatre school and moved to Brussels. It took his father a long time to come see his shows.

Van Hove and Versweyveld met at a dance class and, two months into their relationship, began to make theatre together. They moved to Antwerp, which in 1980 was “punk”, “free-spirited”, a creative hotspot. Jan Fabre was studying there, as well as Martin Margiela and Dries van Noten. In summer 1980 the couple made their first big trip, to New York to see David Bowie in The Elephant Man on Broadway. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” he says. “I fell in love with New York.” They returned to Belgium and staged their first theatre work in an abandoned laundry. They have been inseparable since. In 2004, during a break in rehearsals, they jumped on their bikes and got married in the Amsterdam city hall, “the shortest wedding possible”.

Today, van Hove and Versweyveld live between Amsterdam and New York. It was here van Hove came across Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, dotting the bookshops with its iconic cover by 1970s gay photographer Peter Hujar. He initially dismissed it as another coming-of-age gay story: “I know it, I’ve seen it, been there, not interested.” But two friends gave him the book and soon he was scribbling notes in the margins. “And when I take a pencil, I know I’m thinking about a theatre production.”

He now counts Yanagihara among his friends. They worked together on the English-language stage adaptation. “She is a very committed, very bright, very intelligent, also emotionally very intelligent, highly skilled author, and human being. I admire her. I think the book is really a masterpiece.”

The novel is relentless and, unlike many stories about childhood trauma, offers no redemption. “I didn’t know how to bring it to the stage, because it’s very visceral. There is real abuse described in great detail,” he says. “But there is also an abundance of friendship, of goodness, in the book. I thought it was a wonderful combination of emotional levels.” A bleak book can be put down but theatre has a way of trapping you in a small, dark space. Some critics called the production “an endurance test”. In London, audience members fainted two or three times a week. In Adelaide, two paramedics were posted at the theatre door.

The scale changes but there is a through line in these works. They all describe cycles of violence: its long-lasting, unpredictable, unintended effects once it is unleashed in the world. Van Hove considers, and agrees. “I think violence is a really important theme in the world today. I see everywhere ... that people feel they have the right to use violence to obtain their goals. Even in movements that are, in and of themselves, great movements. I think it’s much more dangerous than we think. Because when you see that politicians can do it, and that movements can do it, then why couldn’t you do it at home? Why not use violence to obtain what you want?”

Van Hove’s work changed after 9/11: he started making “things like Roman Tragedies”. We end up reflecting on the war in Iraq, “illegitimate”, based on false premises. “We are extremely well-equipped, intellectually, to always justify our wrong actions,” he says. “Everyone does this in the Greeks.”

I understand it is no accident his works have so often seemed miraculously to tell the right story at the right time and place. A marathon political history of Rome as American global power founders. The fall of the house of Atreus as Middle Eastern wars bring terrorism to the West. A play about European colonial ghosts in the aftermath of Brexit. A memorable Richard III in a production that was described as “the first great theatrical work of the Trump era”. And now, as we assess the damage of the pandemic lockdowns, perhaps an epic reconsideration of trauma in close relationships.

“A play that you bring on stage has to mean something to the people living today,” van Hove tells me. “At the end of the day, when you’re a good director, you can do everything, but I need to feel a personal connection to the material, and a real urgency. I like personal stories that are also political; political in the sense of the Greek polis: things that concern societies. I am not interested in things because they are beautiful.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Living histories".

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