Ivo van Hove’s Visionary View: An American Classic Through the Eyes of a Belgian Director

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Barefoot and alone with their outsized emotions, with minimal props or setting to distract, the characters prowl and scurry, delivering text with stark authority on a stage that calls to mind a sleek boxing ring. This is the world director Ivo van Hove has conceived for Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. Though the play is ostensibly set in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the 1950s, van Hove’s revival exudes a dreamlike intensity that defies time and place. This production, and others directed by the Belgian-born director, have earned him a reputation as a “maximal minimalist”: the ideas he conveys are colossal, but his staging is sometimes simple, often raw and occasionally controversial.

Born in 1958, van Hove has served as Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s artistic director since 2001. Under his leadership, the theater company has become one of the Netherlands’ most revered and forward-thinking cultural institutions. In the 1990s, van Hove’s work attracted the attention of Jim Nicola, artistic director of the off-Broadway company New York Theatre Workshop. Nicola invited van Hove to remount his productions at his theater with American actors, rather than van Hove’s Dutch company members. Many of the playwrights whose work van Hove explored were American—Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams are two of his longtime favorites—so audiences were culturally at home with the texts of the productions. But the imported staging didn’t always adhere to traditional American interpretations of these works. Tony Award-winning American director Sam Gold (Fun Home, The Flick) recalled his first viewings of van Hove’s productions to The New Yorker: “It was seeing American plays through a director whose vision wasn’t mired in the conventions of contemporary American revivals—a director who wasn’t married to the text, and was trying to tell the story about how the plays related to him and his consciousness.”

Audiences sometimes found van Hove’s choices provocative, with heavy symbolism, bodily fluids and sex making frequent appearances. “In New York, at first, they called me a bad boy, Eurotrash, the man you love to hate and hate to love, all that,” he told The Guardian. “But when I do a play, I want to do it in the most extreme way possible. So, you know, I can live with that.”

Ivo van Hove and Robert Falls discuss Toneelgroep's production of <em>Mourning Becomes Electra</em> in 2009.
Ivo van Hove and Artistic Director Robert Falls discuss Toneelgroep’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra, part of the Goodman’s A Global Exploration of Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century in 2009.

Van Hove’s aesthetic also relies on a holistic integration of sound, light, costumes and sets; since 1980 he has collaborated with scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld (who is also his life partner). In standard American rehearsal procedure, actors work for a defined period of time on text and staging prior to adding technical elements; it is customary for designers to attend only a rehearsal or two before the tech process begins. Van Hove’s protocol, however, invites designers to more greatly influence the storytelling, resulting in a mood and milieu that permeates the entire production. Rather than creating a realistic scene, Versweyveld works to bring van Hove’s interpretation to life by giving the audience a new lens through which to view a classic play. In a conversation with The New York Times’ Patrick Healy, van Hove addressed his interest in classic texts, and recalled an early experience teaching Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to a large group of acting students in Antwerp: “I discovered for myself that I could make much more personal work through the filter of this old text, so that what I had done before felt to me less personal than when I used the text of Shakespeare. So I discovered the huge potential, even in a text from over 400 years ago or 56 years ago, that I could tell even more about myself—about what I thought of myself, of people, of mankind—by using a text by a good author.” Van Hove’s idea of a “good author” has varied over the years, from his 1987 staging of Euripides’ The Bacchae, to the productions of O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions and Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, to stage adaptations of films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes. More recently, he has also helmed Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart and adaptations of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Annie Proulx’s novella Brokeback Mountain. For many years, Miller was not on his list. “I had a huge misunderstanding,” van Hove told Steven Suskin of the Huffington Post. “I thought that Miller was a politically correct author who divided people into good and evil. And I was, of course, totally wrong in this. The plays are very ambiguous, the characters are very complex. I consider him one of the great—if not the greatest—American playwrights.”

Lately, van Hove’s discovery and exploration of Miller has taken his career to new heights: his revivals of A View From the Bridge and The Crucible played on Broadway, with the former earning Tony Awards for both Best Revival of a Play and Best Director. Throughout, it remains important to van Hove to avoid letting Miller linger in the 20th century (the playwright produced most of his major works, including A View From the Bridge, in the middle of that century—though he penned a new work just months before his death in 2005). “Arthur Miller wrote stage directions that were very innovative when he wrote them in the 1950s,” van Hove noted. “Do the plays that way now, they can become very old-fashioned because we have seen it already hundreds of times. So it needs also a director and an artistic team that push it, that push the work. The words and dialogue are of a genius, so you know it’s fabulous—but you push the plays aesthetically into the 21st century.”


Buy tickets and learn more about A View From the Bridge here. Onstage seating available. Tickets start at just $25!