When Belgian director Ivo van Hove last brought a Shakespeare production to London, he warned his actors: “We are now going into the cage of the lions. We are going perhaps to be devoured – or we tame them.”
If that makes British audiences sound unexpectedly ferocious, it’s worth pointing out that the production was Roman Tragedies in 2007, an interval-free, six-hour Shakespearean trilogy, in Dutch. You can see why he feared a mauling. As it happens, critics and audiences purred like pussycats over the production by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, who under van Hove’s directorship produce stylish, rigorous work that cracks open the classics.
Since then, theatregoers have been wowed by his stark, devastatingly good production of A View from the Bridge – which won every award going and transferred to Broadway – and a more sombre staging of Antigone with Juliette Binoche. Add his current Broadway productions of The Crucible, starring Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw, and Lazarus, David Bowie’s musical, and suddenly this uncompromisingly experimental European director is being dubbed “incredibly fashionable” by The New York Times.
Which is a win for theatreland, but also gives van Hove reason to be sanguine about the reception of his next Dutch-language, English-subtitled Shakespeare “compilation”, Kings of War, a four-and-a-half-hour squishing together of Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III, which opens at the Barbican tomorrow night. “I think everybody by now knows that I take Shakespeare seriously. But with us you have to expect the unexpected. And I think [British audiences] are open to that.”
I saw Kings of War last year in Amsterdam, and found it a smart act of selection and compression: Van Hove homes in on the individual kings, and how they rule, making it a crisp study in modern personality politics.
He wanted to do a show about leadership in the 21st century, having become fascinated with the way political heads navigate their own power, or powerlessness. And taken together, these three Shakespeares show three very different styles of ruling, bringing out issues that map pertinently to modern geopolitics.
Henry V’s crowd-stirring rhetoric becomes a media-trained prime minister’s televised speech, while the way a weak Henry VI is manipulated by his political advisors feels wincingly Westminster. As for Richard III’s egotistical war-mongering… well, lets just say the spectre of Blair and Bush’s Iraq invasion hangs heavy.
“Shakespeare shows us leaders at the moment that they have to make the most important decision: go to war or not,” says van Hove. “That’s the most extreme decision any leader can take, because even when you win a war, there are always casualties. And yet Richard III even makes the decision to go to war in the middle of peace – it is like the Iraq war: the cause is not really there but you invent a cause in order to go to war.”
There are no big battles here, however – van Hove stages the whole thing in a war room, an interior space where history-altering decisions are made. Or are they? We’re also shown how many key political decisions happen behind the scenes: hand-held camera footage, projected on large screens, reveals bickering advisors and secret conflabs in the corridors of power.
The production is designed by Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s long-term professional collaborator – and romantic partner. Which sounds intense: how do they manage a work-life balance? “It’s still challenging; it doesn’t become routine, not at all. [But] we really take the theatre seriously: it’s my soul there on stage. So for us, it’s an existential thing to make theatre – it’s not just our ‘job’.”Such commitment has made van Hove a favourite with actors and theatre-makers. But last year, he got the dream call: David Bowie. Robert Fox suggested van Hove as director for Lazarus, which opened in New York shortly before Bowie’s death; there are plans for a London transfer.
Working with Bowie
So… how was working with Bowie? “The first meeting, I was very tense: he was my idol,” confesses van Hove. “His music was the soundtrack of my life. But I was very aware that he wasn’t searching for a groupie – he was searching for a collaborator.”
Bowie found it in van Hove. “He could easily have been the boss, but he was very open. I really connected with him; I felt a deep trust.” Bowie even confided in van Hove, and scriptwriter Enda Walsh, about being unwell. “During the opening night, he was very fragile. When we said goodbye to each other I thought, perhaps this will be the last time – and it turned out to be.” But Bowie’s death still hit van Hove hard. “I had thought, he will survive; he was in full treatment. He wanted to live.”
On the night Lazarus opened, weeks before his death, Bowie whispered to van Hove: let’s start on the sequel. “And he really meant it.”
Van Hove may be serious about theatre, but we enjoy a cheerful chat about its current state. He thinks we’re seeing a major shift in the commercial sector, pointing to the success of Robert Icke’s Oresteia in the UK, or Fun Home and Hamilton on Broadway, as well as his own work being embraced by the mainstream.
“This is the most happy thing that has happened in the last few years of my life, because this is kind of a mission: since I was very young I tried to make theatre without any compromises, without pleasing the audience. And now… our productions can be open to a wide audience without compromise. Audiences are much smarter than everybody thinks,” he concludes. Smart, and hungry for new work – but I suspect van Hove has no reason to fear being fed to the lions anymore.
‘Kings of War’, Barbican, London, 22 April to 1 May