“This was the year of big challenges,” says Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove, “of first times in my life.”
When the various theatre awards groups hand out their prizes this spring, van Hove will surely merit a nomination or two, but they might also seriously consider giving him a medal for understatement of the year.
Few theatre artists, let alone one who hails from Europe, have enjoyed the kind of New York season van Hove has in 2015–16. It began early last fall with his production of Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It continued with his hailed London version of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, which served as the director’s Broadway debut when it opened in October. Soon after, he was Off-Broadway for the world premiere of the David Bowie and Enda Walsh musical Lazarus, which shattered box-office records at New York Theatre Workshop and became international news when Bowie died suddenly just weeks after the opening.
Three-quarters through this season, dense with red-letter days, van Hove sits at a table in the basement of La MaMa ETC, the East Village theatre complex, where he is rehearsing a new staging of Miller’s The Crucible. It is his fourth New York production in nine months, and his first to originate on Broadway.
Given all of this, van Hove still won’t commit to the idea that this may be the biggest season of his storied career. “That would be insulting for the Comédie-Française, where I’m going afterward,” he says, diplomatically. Still, he admits it’s been a special time for him.
“I arrived for the first rehearsal of View From the Bridge. I came to the artist’s entrance of the Lyceum Theatre, and at that moment I was more than aware of my first step into a Broadway theatre as a director. That’s a big thing for any director.… Not so many of us outside of America get to do it.”
Even fewer get to do it twice in one season, and with plays by the same author.
“I’ve been living in the world of Arthur Miller,” he says, “his thoughts, the way he writes a scene, the way he treats his characters.”
Though View is set among the mid-20th-century dockworkers of Red Hook, Brooklyn, and The Crucible takes place during the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, van Hove sees thematic similarities between their respective protagonists: longshoreman Eddie Carbone and Puritan farmer John Proctor.
“It’s different worlds, it’s different characters, but there are a lot of comparisons,” he explains. “At the end, you have almost the same line from them: ‘I want my name.’”
Stylistically, however, he sees the two pieces very differently. “It’s a chorus onstage, 18 actors,” he says of The Crucible. “If View From the Bridge is like a sonata, this is like a symphony—a lot of different instruments playing.”
Playing those instruments is a cast led by film and television stars, including Ben Whishaw (Spectre), Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones), Tony winner and Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), as well as veterans of past New York van Hove productions, including Bill Camp, Thomas Jay Ryan and Jason Butler Harner.
“It’s a great mixture of these people,” he says. “I think that’s good for my first real premiere on Broadway.” Having actors who know his sometimes unorthodox style sewn through the cast is a comfort to him, he says. “They know me. They know my humor. They know when I need five minutes.”
The idea to revive The Crucible came from producer Scott Rudin, who also put forward Ronan for the cast, before her Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated turn in Brooklyn gave her name that extra sheen. Ronan plays Abigail Williams, a character often cast as a villain, recklessly ruining lives out of jealousy. Van Hove takes a more charitable view of Abigail.
“As a girl, you have three disadvantages in this Salem community,” he explains. “You’re a woman; you’re a child; and the girls, most of them are servants.” Abigail, who is dismissed from her work at the Proctor home by Elizabeth Proctor after having an affair with her husband, John, “is a hurt young woman. She’s not an evil person. The evil comes from being hurt.”
It seems a natural assumption that New York will see more of Ivo van Hove after this season in which, in his words, “lots of new doors have been opened.” But one mustn’t assume with a director whose career choices are as specific as van Hove’s.
“I’m 57,” he clarifies. “I’m not for hire. I want to spend my life in the theatre in a meaningful way.… I’m here at rehearsal from the morning to the evening every day. I better believe 180 percent in the project that I’m doing. If I don’t believe 180 percent, how am I going to make other people believe 100 percent?”