Ivo van Hove on Hedda Gabler

Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler

Traditionally, boarding schools don’t have much of a reputation for nurturing young artistic types. This was not the case for the Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove—but then, he has never been the type to follow tradition. He loved boarding school. It was where he discovered the theatre.

He did not, however, manage to carry this early passion for educational institutions into law school. It wasn’t that he hated it. In fact, he found it quite useful. “You have philosophy, psychology, Roman law,” he explains. “It brought me a lot–even bookkeeping.” Destined to be neither lawyer nor bookkeeper, one day, whilst sitting in the library, he decided to leave. “I made this split decision: ‘I don’t want this.’” To the vexation of his parents, he transferred to an arts college and began to carve out a career that has, over the decades, been defined by a startling temerity, and a dogged determination to thwart expectation.

Famously, his staging of A Streetcar Named Desire caused quite a stir on Broadway, provocatively featuring a bathtub and copious amounts of nudity. In London, he is best-known for his Olivier-award winning version of A View From a Bridge which, set in a low-lit boxing ring, heaved with a raw physicality. And this December, Van Hove will direct Patrick Marber’s contemporary interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the National theatre, with Ruth Wilson in the titular role.

Clearly keenly impulsive—and decisive—Van Hove chooses his projects instinctively. “I always follow my heart,” he says, which usually beats to the rhythm of Ibsen, Miller and Shakespeare. “They talk about the very basic things, the good texts. They still resonate with us today because they are deeply rooted in our existence.”

His skill lies in his deft ability to take these classic plays and stretch them, relentlessly, until they yield new meaning. “Listen,” he says, conspiratorially. “The purity of the text is an illusion, it’s not possible.” He offers an example. In workshops, he will give his actors an expression as simple as ‘I love you’. They never say it in the same way twice. “Even with the smallest of phrases, three words, there can be tons of interpretation.”

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Ivo Van Hove

Hedda Gabler offers Van Hove even more of a challenge—or an opportunity, depending on which way you look at it—than normal. He has already staged the play once, in New York, back in 2004. Surely it must be hard to find new meanings and modes of expression beyond those one has already created?

Van Hove does not seem worried. “It’s a play with so much to discover.” Unfolding against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Norway, the tragedy tells the tale of a fiery, frustrated woman hemmed in by her dreary surroundings. Over a century later, and Van Hove sees her story being played out, over and over again. “Still today, women—and other people—don’t get all the opportunities that men do.” But Hedda’s hamartia, her fatal flaw, is that she is complicit in the system she abhors: “She is addicted to luxury.” Furiously destructive, Van Hove sees Hedda as an enduring metaphor for our times. “You see a soul in deep crisis,” he says. “She’s a very complicated person, and I think that’s what draws people to theatre, to see these kind of characters.”—Isobel Thompson

Click here to buy tickets for Hedda Gabler (December 5–November 26). A NT Live broadcast of the production will be screened in cinemas on 9 March 2017.

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