Ivo Van Hove is the director using theatre to get people talking
Ivo Van Hove, the Belgian artistic director of the Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, is one of the most in-demand theatre directors of our time. He’s best known in Britain for his Hedda Gabler with Ruth Wilson at the National Theatre in 2016, and this year’s All About Eve at the Noël Coward Theatre. And this June he’s bringing his formidable production of The Damned to the Barbican.
‘It’s about things that are happening right now in front of our eyes,’ explains Van Hove. The Damned is a dark, twisted tale of greed, violence and family betrayal, depicting the brutal self-destruction of a wealthy family against the backdrop of nascent Nazism in 1930s Germany. Featuring an immense cast of 30 actors from the Comédie-Française (and performed in French with English subtitles), the production uses archival footage from the period, plus live recordings from a roving camera that at times turns on the audience, drawing them in to the action. Van Hove’s production is based on Luchino Vischonti’s 1969 screenplay for his film The Damned, and was first premiered at the Avignon Festival in 2016.
Although it’s a period piece, what drew Van Hove to The Damned was the resonance of its themes with modern life: economic individualism and greed; a society losing its ability to love and empathise; the easy radicalisation of young people. ‘With plays about WWII you think “oh that’s so long ago, that’s not us” but in this case it’s more us than we admit,’ he explains.
In a chilling case of art becoming life, when The Damned first debuted in Avignon in July 2016, President François Hollande was sitting in the audience as the Nice truck attack happened. ‘He was suddenly taken out [of the theatre], so we knew something had happened,’ says Van Hove. ‘And by the end of the production everyone knew.’
For Van Hove, though, this is what good theatre is all about: ‘to show us in a very sharp and hard way issues at their most extreme.’ It’s all about opening up the conversation. ‘Political theatre for me is not about saying something’s right or wrong. It’s about presenting the issue on the table and letting you make up your own mind.’
He points to 9/11 as the turning point in terms of what he wants to talk about with his work. ‘Since then the world has changed – or rather we didn’t know the world very well up till then. But although I deal with big issues, I don’t call them political. More political in the Greek sense – “polis”, which means what is important for our society.’ Future talking points will include Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which he’s adapting for the Manchester International Festival in July, and a modern remake of West Side Story, scheduled to open on Broadway in December.
And despite the dominance of digital entertainment, Van Hove sees theatre becoming increasingly popular in the years to come. ‘Theatre will give you the live experience that everyone craves in the 21st century. I see it as an opportunity. Not a threat.’
Until 25 June, Silk Street, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS, barbican.org.uk