Ivo van Hove has been directing for thirty years. Born in Flanders and director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam since 2000, his impressive portfolio covers theatre, film, television and opera, and he has worked extensively across Europe and America.
His profile in Britain has never been higher. When he brought Roman Tragedies to the Barbican in 2009, it was met with both critical and popular acclaim. At the beginning of February 2011 he returned with the Antonioni Project, which, with a few exceptions, also received a barrage of four and five star reviews.
We meet the day before the Antonioni Project is set to debut at the Barbican at the Thistle Hotel where he is staying. There is a quiet air of confidence about him, although certainly no trace of cockiness. For van Hove it would seem that confidence simply equates to a belief in what he is doing.
He often adapts films for stage, frequently employs ground-breaking technologies in his stagings, and tends to stick closely to any original texts that he works from. In spite of these traits, it remains hard to characterise his approach because he has done so many different things. When I ask if he could describe his own style he says it is something he is still discovering, and doubts that will ever change: “For me theatre is not only my job. I think I can express myself – or eighty per cent of what I am – through theatre.” This in itself ensures that his style is constantly developing because, as with anyone, his tastes change over time. Talking about his new venture, he says “I wouldn’t have thought of doing the Antonioni Project when I was twenty. It just wouldn’t have made sense.”
This 140-minute long play is a new take on Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy of early 1960s films – L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse – which all focus on couples failing to connect with each other and the world around them. The play melds the three films into one because van Hove felt that the characters in the various stories could simply be older and younger versions of each other. This leads to the three plots intertwining, and the people from the different films coming face-to-face.
So why do these films now resonate with him? They “talk about mid-life crisis. They talk about relationships when you have had experience of relationships for a long time.” He also feels that Antonioni’s films have become relevant once more. As in the early 1960s, we are in a transitional era where we know that the solutions trotted out in the past – communism, fascism, and raw capitalism – do not work, but have little idea of what will. In our desperate search for a twenty-first century direction we are just as lost as the bourgeois couples in the film, and he is fascinated about how such ideological aimlessness impacts upon individual behaviour. Van Hove believes that the films “talk about individuals in a society in a way that I don’t find in plays that are around. They give something extra.”
Amidst the other films that van Hove has adapted are two Ingmar Bergman pieces, Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Cries and Whispers (1972). The latter focuses on the character of Agnes who on her deathbed is unable to find love or connect emotionally with anyone around her. In the film the predominant colour is red to highlight blood and sexual repression, but van Hove saw Yves Klein Blue dominate the set and made the piece a less religious and more existential experience. He took a description that Bergman provided, but didn’t develop, that Agnes had vague artistic ambitions, and made her into a performance artist who dies under the lens of her own camera.