‘How many litres of blood do we need?’: Ivo van Hove’s ITA on 20 years of shocking theatregoers

·8-min read

Ivo van Hove, director: I’m from a small village in Belgium. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and thought I’d never make a cent as a director. The arts in Belgium were totally old-fashioned: there was no room for new talents, only the old crocodiles. Elsewhere, performance art and punk were happening. The actor Dora van der Groen said go to the Netherlands because I would lose years not having a job in Belgium. I ran a theatre in the south of the Netherlands then took over Toneelgroep Amsterdam [which became Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA)] in 2001. When I come to a big institution, I like to honour the tradition but also innovate. I’d worked a lot with my own generation but decided this should be a coming together of all ages so we’d have actors in their 20s and 70s. That’s a real ensemble – different opinions and experiences.

Marieke Heebink, actor: Amsterdam people are known for speaking up; Belgians are very polite. So there was a kind of culture clash. We had to get to know each other. An ensemble is like a working family – you see each other’s flaws.

An D’Huys, costume designer: It’s been 20 years that I’ve worked with Ivo. He often has the same people around him – it reminds me of Fassbinder or Fellini. You know each other so well and there is a sensibility that goes very deep. It’s not just about taste but about his characters. I know very quickly what he thinks about them.

Robert Icke, writer-director: There’s something beautiful about how the ensemble has grown together. They’re so diligent about not getting comfortable. You get depth, richness, bravery, confidence – and you don’t get staleness. That’s a dream orchestra to conduct.

Fantasy … Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead.
‘The productions are like rituals’ … Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Halina Reijn, actor: When I was 13 I saw one of Ivo’s productions, Lulu, starring Chris Nietvelt. I wrote him a letter asking to join the company. He never wrote back! It was my dream to join them but I was scared, too, when I finally did. They were the biggest company in Amsterdam with the biggest theatre stars. The hierarchy changed when Ivo came – he was a young director and installed a different dynamic and gave young actors a lot of space. Before that it was super-intimidating.

Ivo van Hove: An ensemble is a lot of work. It’s not easy and it costs money. We pay the actors every month and are very loyal to them.

Hans Kesting, actor: If you work with the same group of people there’s no distrust, no fear of making mistakes. We work much faster. Ivo made the ensemble a much more professional organisation and elevated it to an international travelling theatre company.

Marieke Heebink: The touring is very demanding. Before Covid, almost every couple of months we were somewhere new – Tokyo, Singapore, New York, London.

Ivo van Hove: We go everywhere so we decided to bring our own cook with us. International touring is part of our identity. It’s not for nothing that we now call ourselves ITA. Our goal is making the best theatre in the world – that’s why the bookkeeper is there, the marketing people, the actors.

Jan Versweyveld, stage designer: I love that we have two beautiful homes where we work. One of our Amsterdam theatres, the Stadsschouwburg, was built at the end of the 19th century. Then we had the possibility to develop a second theatre which took 10 years. It’s not an easy space – it’s quite big, quite open. It takes some experience to really have the benefit of it.

An D’Huys: With an ensemble, you know the bodies of the actors. I watch how they move. The actor has to live in the costume which should be like a second skin. We use video projections on stage so you are aware of accessories and details. I’m responsible for the makeup but we like to see small wrinkles and sweat instead. With Ivo it’s about murder, blood, aggression … I ask: how many litres of blood do we need? We have three spare costumes for each actor but sometimes that’s not enough.

An event … Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt in the Roman Tragedies.
An event … Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt in the Roman Tragedies. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Halina Reijn: When you do one of the plays that lasts several hours you really go through it! But there’s nothing that compares – I miss it so much now that I’ve left the ensemble. The shows are about the essence of life – so if you’re dealing with death or love privately then you go on stage and give your own feelings. It’s way deeper than delivering a line. The productions are like rituals or exorcisms.

Ivo van Hove: Every director is different and works in a different way. Simon McBurney, for example, uses improvisations. My company was very open when he came here – it’s in their DNA to be like that.

Jan Versweyveld: We always try to dig deep into the material and find a connection to our time and ideas of now. At the start of a production we take the ensemble and lead them into the new project. The first time we speak about it, everybody’s invited and we give a visual presentation.

Marieke Heebink: When we start rehearsing, Jan shows us the set and says have a sniff around. The first really big production I was in was the Roman Tragedies. It wasn’t just a huge stage but an event – the audience sat next to us eating.

Halina Reijn: Ivo has done stage versions of so many films: Antonioni, Visconti, Cassavetes. He always said you don’t have to watch the movies. But it’s too tempting! And so intriguing to see what he does with them. Ivo was one of the first to use video in such a profound way on stage. The video designer Tal Yarden is an absolute genius. It’s a way to break through traditional theatre expectations. I used a camera on stage for Mourning Becomes Electra – Ivo based his concept on Capturing the Friedmans, the horrifying documentary about a family who took home videos of each other.

Jan Versweyveld: In the first conceptual phase of a production we decide whether to use video and the design starts from that. I use model boxes: The Fountainhead was practically developed in the model box by putting in one piece of paper after another. Ivo is not interested in models – he thinks they restrict his fantasy.

Ivo van Hove: I never think about the audience until the last days before we perform. Then I sit back and try to behave like them. If you do that from the beginning you cannot be creative because you censor yourself – this is too loud, too big. I never would have made Age of Rage if I’d thought of the audience. It’s four hours of war.

Gaite Jansen and Gijs Scholten Van Aschat in After the Rehearsal at the Barbican, London, in 2017.
Profound use of video … Gaite Jansen and Gijs Scholten Van Aschat in After the Rehearsal at the Barbican, London, in 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Hans Kesting: These are draining productions that ask a lot of you. I played Mark Antony in Roman Tragedies and Richard III in Kings of War. Huge roles. You are almost in awe of them when you go on stage. We trust in Ivo and where we will go with him. He still has lots of fire and fury but has grown calmer in his presentation. Good actors work well with him, lesser actors get better with him.

Robert Icke: The actors fight with each other like family. They’re not frightened of each other. You give them the scent and they go off like a pack of wolves into the scene. They’re always searching for ways to make it more visceral.

Halina Reijn: I find acting and everything that comes with it to be super-scary and embarrassing and annoying. But Ivo creates a very clear context within which you can be free. He doesn’t judge any character. He just holds up a mirror and makes the audience a witness of their own behaviour.

Draining … Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016.
Draining … Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Robert Icke: I did Oedipus in 2018 with Hans and Marieke. I’d written an English script that was translated – they acted and talked to each other in Dutch and to me in English. It had the potential to be profoundly alienating but I loved it.

An D’Huys: Before my very first meeting with Ivo, for Othello, I prepared lots of drawings but it took no longer than five minutes. Ivo knows what he wants.

Related: All About Theatre About Film: Ivo van Hove’s big-screen obsessions in focus

Hans Kesting: There is a long monologue, “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, in Julius Caesar. I thought it would be a long, difficult process to rehearse but we did it in 20 minutes. Boom. Now we are doing [Hanya Yanagihara’s novel] A Little Life. I thought: how could you turn that book, with those graphic scenes, into a stage production? Ivo’s idea was to let me play all the bad guys in the story – I incorporate the evil. As I get older, when I play a dark character in his plays – and there are many of them – I have darker dreams. It does something to you.

Robert Icke: One day on Oedipus, Hans said to me in front of everyone: “This is an OK speech but I think probably it would be better if it was a great speech!” I was like: You’re quite right, I’ll give it another go. Their constant goal is to make another amazing production that can play for 10 years and be one of those shows that goes around the world.