AMSTERDAM—Last year in Amsterdam, director Ivo van Hove staged the most sensuous, delicious play I’ve seen in a long time. The text of Con Amore was adapted from Monteverdi’s 1622 opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea. For the set, Van Hove’s regular designer, Jan Versweyveld, took the staid Stadsschouwburg theater and built into it a complete, top-of-the-line, working kitchen and bathroom, with a couple of mattresses to make a Real World home complete. Staged in the round, the play was a cynical tale of love and power: The emperor Nero dumps his wife Ottavia for the courtesan Poppea, who dumps her own longtime lover for Nero’s crown. Yet the actors also went on with daily life: they cooked, ate, peed, got food smeared on their bodies, and took long showers. While the text was saying that love was a sham, all the amazing sensuality and nakedness—Halina Reijn, who played Poppea, has the most beautiful body—was telling us to get laid, get fed, and embrace life.
That’s pretty much what Van Hove also conveyed in his Holland Festival 2001 production of Charles L. Mee’s True Love. Love should be respected in all its many forms, from consensual incest (Mee’s play is based on Racine’s Phèdre) to cream pie in your crotch. Yet Van Hove also applies his “all you need is love” aesthetic to plays like Con Amore, in which love is not to be trusted, and Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed, where Alice James explains how you can do it all in your mind.
In these productions, the juxtaposition produced inviting surfaces with provocative dark shadows underneath. In this year’s Holland Festival, Van Hove tries the same trick on Chekhov’s Three Sisters (Drie Zusters). But this time, he has run up against a play that won’t be seduced by his aesthetic. “Live a little!” Van Hove seems to shout at the play. “It’s a beautiful world!” “Yes, yes,” Chekhov’s characters say, and go right back to moping and dreaming.
Van Hove and Versweyveld stage Chekhov very straight. On the Stadsschouwburg’s proscenium stage, Versweyveld’s set is a kind of timeless bourgeois living room, occasionally curtained with projection screens so that we see the characters as ghosts of themselves. Van Hove’s readings downplay the sex (there’s no nudity, not even from Reijn, as Irina), and explore instead the characters’ illusions about the future. Even lust object Vershinin is here just another noodle with dreams. But to play Chekhov you have to love another human quality, our ability to shoot ourselves in the foot. The morose quality in Chekhov doesn’t seem to be in Van Hove’s register. But because Van Hove’s style is out of tune with the play it’s in, you can see how strong it is. Just because Three Sisters won’t take its clothes off for him doesn’t mean he doesn’t have charm.
Van Hove is also the artistic director of the Holland Festival. During the festival he discussed with the Voice his favorite playwrights, directors, and some of his own future plans.
Which European directors do you think should be seen in New York?
Christoph Marthaler, who is completely unknown in New York. He’s a theater director and composer working in Zurich who has a very personal view of theater, music theater, opera. Die Schöne Müllerin, at this year’s Holland Festival, is music theater with opera singers and actors all in one performance. Heiner Goebbels, but he’s already been at BAM. In Eastern Europe you have some interesting young directors. In Warsaw, for instance, Grzegorz Jaryzna and Krzysztof Warlikowski. One difference is that in Europe a lot of big productions are also very innovative and extreme. In New York I’m an avant-gardist. Here, I’m official theater.
Are there writers you like in America right now?
Charles Mee, and also Suzan-Lori Parks. Mee is writing a play for me now. I’ve been directing for 22 years and it’s the first time I’ve commissioned a play. I was very afraid of that. He’s in America, I’m in Europe, it’s not an obvious combination. But we’ll give it a try.
What’s frightening about commissioning a play?
That the play will drop in your mailbox and you don’t like it, you don’t feel anything, you don’t understand it. I just got the first part yesterday. I have it with me, but I don’t dare read it yet. Mee is very theatrical in his writing. He has a kind of lyricism that I like. He’s not afraid of bringing higher ideas together with the lower instincts of people, the aggressive parts, the dirty parts. And he has a huge imagination and fantasy. The worlds he puts on the stage are not realistic worlds. He writes about our unconscious, and that’s what I like very much. His plays are never superficial, they’re always about big themes. And of course he’s modern, he samples, he uses a lot of existing material. A theater author is always stealing from everybody.
Do you have a favorite playwright?
Eugene O’Neill is my all-time favorite. I’m doing Mourning Becomes Electra next season, for the second time. I just did More Stately Mansions. My production of Desire Under the Elms was on CNN because I had live cows in it. I love O’Neill because he is thinking about the catastrophe that life is.