I went to see Ivo Van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler this weekend. I was just about to add to a series of articles I’ve written about this director’s work over the years, when I read the article in the Guardian about your views on the relationship between contemporary British and European theatre.
You might be wondering who on earth I am and what gives me the right to engage in a conversation about British theatre with you? As it happens, despite my unpronounceable name, I’ve more or less learnt everything I know about theatre by working in Britain. I have spent well over 20 years involved with British academia as a student and a teacher and I’ve written a book called Theatre-Making, mostly inspired by my annual visits to the Edinburgh Fringe. As a dramaturg and a teacher, I am concerned that I might be deemed an infectious body. Call me paranoid, but I can assure you that in a post-Brexit climate one must take any such potential charges extremely seriously. And in case you haven’t noticed, there are quite a few of us still around. Just.
I have studied and at times admired your work (Plenty was quite something). And I have heard, numerous times, grievances similar to the ones you voiced to Jeffrey Sweet coming from your colleagues (your namesakes Edgar and Eldridge come to mind). At any other time it would have been enough to just roll one’s eyes and move on. Not anymore. Not at the time when the Home Office is slowly instigating a potential exodus of non-Anglo-Saxon professionals from its shores.
I want to clear up two things. First, the terminology: ‘director’ and ‘theatre-maker’ are not the same. In Britain, director is someone who ‘puts a text on its feet’. In various European contexts director is someone who renders the play into the multifarious language of the stage. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever engaged in a process of translation you’ll know that meaning outweighs word-for-word fidelity). ‘Theatre-maker’ is someone who does not want to self-identify as just a writer or just a director or just a composer or just a designer, or just a performer, because they can do more than one of those things equally well (think Tim Crouch, Chris Goode, Chris Thorpe, Caroline Horton). Theatre-maker is a predominantly British professional self-denomination. It started here. I think it is rooted in the multidisciplinary approach to studying drama/performance/theatre studies at a university.
Second, I want to take you up on your irresistible provocation that what is going on in British theatre is an ‘infection’ by the continental practice of ‘director’s theatre’. You are a writer, you know how to use words. You know that ‘infection’ is a biological term indicating spread of disease. One would be slightly appalled if one took your claim literally.
But I wanted to talk to you about Ivo Van Hove. Truth be told, the Guardian names your interlocutor Jeffrey Sweet, not you, as having specific views on this director’s work. But his elaborations come on the basis of an apparent shared affinity you have towards the idea that European directors are disrespectful towards text. Interestingly, I sat in Hedda Gabler yesterday wondering why Van Hove and Marber were being apparently so faithful to the details of Ibsen’s text when we no longer live in a world where we are waited on by servants, where we wear socially appropriate hats or where women marry for status because they don’t feel they have another choice, we don’t call each other by our surnames, and we don’t go around carrying the only printed copy of our life’s work with us. I was surprised they were not being more radical. To be quite frank, even though I’d loved many of Van Hove’s previous productions, I was sitting there finding this one quite dull.
But then the fourth act happened, and Judge Brack proceeded to spill tomato juice from a can he’d just opened all over Hedda’s silk white camisole and to rub it into her hair. This was a moment the likes of Jeffrey Sweet might question on the grounds of its ‘coherence’, as what was going on on stage was clearly not what the writer prescribed. At the same time it gave us a sense of suspense, just for a short while it made it possible to watch as if for the first time, as if we didn’t know what would happen next and how it would end (even if the bloodstained body was clearly in sight). Judge Brack was being menacing, not balanced, rational and all-knowing the way he is usually portrayed. Judge Brack’s status denomination was not being read perfunctorily as an indication of the character’s social status but as a dramaturgical function – as the principle of judgment itself, in its full pummelling force. I wouldn’t call this disrespecting the text, I would call it ‘reading the text with one’s full intellectual faculties switched on’.
Van Hove certainly has no interest in hacking and rewriting any text he touches for some spurious reasons of his own. On the contrary, he reads the texts he directs with X-Ray precision. He embeds clues both blatantly and stealthily and he sends you home rewinding the whole thing, trying to work out the pattern of his own reading. Like the judge, the servant – hovering onstage dressed in black throughout – is of course not a literal servant here, but a facet of the central issue, or of Hedda’s psyche itself. Similarly, Hedda Gabler is not a kind of three-dimensional and contextually determined character we have been taught to try and understand in the spirit of psychological realism. Sprawled all over her piano which she does not know how to play, she is a personification of thwarted ambition. She is imprisoned in a room without doors, into which other characters arrive and from which they leave by way of the auditorium. You’ll think this is pushing it, but let me say it: in this way, the stage becomes an extension of our mind, a metaphor for the process of thinking itself.
I find this endlessly exciting. Surely any writer would want a director who can make their work live on beyond the possibilities of the writer’s own imagination?
Dear David, to be quite honest, I don’t really expect you to have read this or to have read this far at all. But if you are around, here is, based on personal experience, my parting shot: we should be alert and watching out for the dangers of infection, that’s for sure. However, I bet you’ll find that the really deadly infection is coming not from the apparent intellectualism of continental theatre, but from the swirling sentiments of xenophobia and nationalism coming from within. Don’t legitimise them, too many people are listening to you.