Although he has always been fond of this country’s drama, Ivo van Hove — a European vying for the mantle of America’s hottest stage director — never felt any affinity for one of our most revered dramatists, Arthur Miller.
Of course, Belgian-born van Hove, who runs a theater in Amsterdam, respected the achievement of “Death of a Salesman,” but otherwise, he far preferred to delve into the work of other American theater writers, such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and Tony Kushner. Miller, by comparison, seemed too rigid, a dramatist whose determination to force his point of view on audiences stirred only resistance in van Hove.
“I never thought of Miller as a great playwright before,” he said, late one afternoon in February, another day’s rehearsal of “The Crucible” in an East Village basement space under his belt. “I thought he was too clearly moralistic. I discovered I was clearly wrong.”
It is, in fact, the playwright he long underestimated who is giving him the most prominent platform he has ever had in the United States. Because the 57-year-old van Hove has brought not one, but two Arthur Miller plays to Broadway this season, in revivals that have been among the year’s most highly anticipated. In October arrived the director’s Broadway debut, the transfer from London’s Young Vic Theatre of a rawly emotional, sexually charged version of Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” And now, for an encore, comes his new staging for Broadway of “The Crucible,” with a score by Philip Glass and a starry international cast headed by Ben Whishaw, Tony winner Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds and Saoirse Ronan, who was Oscar-nominated this year as best actress for “Brooklyn.”
“The Crucible,” which began preview performances March 1 at the Walter Kerr Theatre and opens officially March 31, sits at the finish line of a remarkable U.S. marathon for van Hove. As “A View From the Bridge” was gearing up, his revival of Sophocles’s “Antigone,” which started in Luxembourg with Juliette Binoche in the title role, was touring to institutional theaters in New York and Washington.
Later in the fall, he was ensconced at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, unveiling his production of “Lazarus,” a musical by David Bowie, who was then in the terminal stages of a struggle with cancer.
Soon after the musical’s engagement ended, rehearsals for “The Crucible” began — with the expectation that on this occasion, as he has so often in the past, van Hove would take a radical and controversy-inciting approach to a classic text.
“It’s a total coincidence!” van Hove exclaimed about his eclectic, project-jammed American season. But the convergence of assignments looks more like a culmination than a matter of happenstance. Having developed a New York following after a series of off-Broadway productions over the years, starting with a 1998 staging of O’Neill’s rarely produced “More Stately Mansions” at New York Theatre Workshop, van Hove is that extreme exception these days: a European auteur who establishes an important beachhead here. Although directors from Britain and Ireland are regular guests in every major theater town in the United States, invitations to those from continental Europe tend to be confined to occasional international festivals and university residencies.
That may be because of language barriers, or differences in directorial style: Some European directors seek to exert more control over text than U.S. practitioners are accustomed to. In any event, van Hove has managed to assemble what few other Europeans do in these parts, a directorial career that combines experimental theater with Broadway.
“It’s not about commercial or non-commercial for me,” van Hove said. “It’s about, ‘Do I connect with the material?’ My life is too short to spoil it with things that don’t interest me. But what I’m not interested in,” he continued, “is a piece of theater that’s just for entertainment.”
This philosophy and the results it can generate have made him a magnet for stage actors of similar seriousness.
“Always, you take a leap of faith with a director, because it’s quite rare to work with someone more than once,” said Whishaw, a rising British stage star best known here as Q in the recent James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre.” “With Ivo, I had only seen his production of ‘A View From the Bridge,’ but I felt so overwhelmed by that production that just on instinct, I knew you could put your faith in this man and trust him completely.”
“A View From the Bridge” was a dazzling example of van Hove’s intense, visually arresting style, a showcase for some of his best theatrical impulses. (The production, which ended its Broadway stay Feb. 21, is in talks to run at the Kennedy Center in the fall.) For his unorthodox concept, he took a cue from his longtime set designer, Jan Versweyveld, who, when thinking of the play’s characters, imagined lifting a rock and finding ants scurrying underneath. From that came the opening image of the production, a monolith rising to reveal the actors of Miller’s story of betrayal on the Brooklyn waterfront. What followed was the tale of Mark Strong’s extraordinary Eddie Carbone, enacted in a bare pit, an arena brilliantly suited to the primal emotions unleashed in van Hove’s version.
If the revival received some of the best notices of the fall on Broadway, the response was something of an anomaly for van Hove, whose work more commonly divides reviewers and audiences. Such was the case recently with “Antigone,” which stopped for a weekend of performances at the Kennedy Center in October. Although appreciated by some critics, the modern-dress piece, supplemented lavishly by video and evocations of wind-swept Greek promontories, struck others as odd and ponderous. The reception for some of his earlier stagings has ranged from irritated to amused. “A Bathtub Named Desire” was the label New York Times critic Ben Brantley put on van Hove’s 1999 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which indeed placed Stanley in a bathtub. Brantley added in his review that the director evinced “the severe logic of the steely literature teacher who parses works of art into diagrams.”
Other of his off-Broadway productions have been greeted with more admiring notices, such as his 2014 stage version of Ingmar Bergman’s TV miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage.” But the swipes at works such as “Streetcar” left a mark.
“It wasn’t like I loved the hatred,” van Hove said, sitting in a windowless room in the bowels of the legendary LaMama Experimental Theater Club on East Fourth Street, where “The Crucible” was being readied for Broadway. “I immediately had a lot of fans, but I was also the man who people loved to hate and hated to love.”
He grew up in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. He adored movies, especially the work of Italian filmmakers Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but gravitated in his 20s toward plays. “I totally fell in love with theatrical text and discovered through the mask of text, I could express myself better than in my own words,” he said. Acting, on the other hand, held zero appeal. “I wouldn’t be so interested in doing a play every night, again and again.”
Van Hove’s talents took him to Antwerp and then to Amsterdam, where in 2001 he became general director of the city’s leading troupe, the Toonelgroep Amsterdam. There he burnished a reputation for, as the company notes on its website, “dismantling theater classics” by looking at them “through the prism of our own time.” Van Hove has applied the prism to Shakespeare, Molière and Chekhov, and adapted works by such varied sources as film director Michelangelo Antonioni and novelist Ayn Rand.
“I demand a lot from my team and my actors. I have to believe 100 percent in my projects,” he explained, adding that he can require as much as a year to 18 months to plan a production. For “The Crucible,” set in the paranoid realm of Salem, Mass., during the witch trials of the late 1600s, van Hove asked actors to show up on day one with their roles memorized. “A lot is expected of us,” echoed Ronan, who is making her Broadway debut as Abigail Williams, the teenager who venomously accuses the village’s most virtuous citizens of witchcraft.
Because the technical elements are so crucial, they are integrated into rehearsals virtually from the outset, Ronan said. She recalled composer Glass sitting in a corner of the room all the time, working on parts of the score. “The music is like a character in the show,” the actress said.
As for insights into their own characters, van Hove tends to speak to the actors strictly in terms of small moments that heighten emotion. “He’ll give you a tiny thing to think about,” Ronan said, “and it opens up a whole new world.”
Whishaw, who portrays John Proctor, the central character, faced with the choice between death and falsely confessing to witchcraft, was harder pressed to define van Hove’s technique. “When you open your mouth to try to explain it, it becomes quite incomprehensible,” said the actor, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “It’s really very difficult to say how he does what he does.”
Van Hove declined to reveal any specifics about his technical approach to the play. But it was clear that his earlier impression, of Miller’s plays as off-puttingly transparent, was now wholly obsolete. “He's writing about ethical problems and about morality, but not in an easy way,” he said. Noting the play’s allegorical links to the McCarthy era of the 1950s and Miller’s own decision at the time not to name names, the director said he found “The Crucible” a work of bountiful riches — in other words, “a play full of ambivalence.”
“It’s really written,” the director declared, “with his tears and with his blood.”
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Through July 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.