Ivo van Hove: 'I can really kill a darling'

The award-winning director of ”A View from the Bridge” has returned to the Young Vic with ”Song from Far Away” and is about to conquer New York

Ivo van Hove at the 2015 Olivier Awards
Ivo van Hove at the 2015 Olivier Awards
© Dan Wooller

I meet Olivier Award-winning director Ivo van Hove in the cafe of the Young Vic, where his latest production – Simon Stephens's Song from Far Away – opens this week. I begin by telling him that his name came up during my last interview, with Oresteia director Robert Icke, who is the latest of a number of British directors to have named him as an influence.

How does it feel to have had such an influence on British theatre?
It's very rewarding, especially hearing that from someone who is a very good director in his own right. I did a talk at the Dutch Centre in London recently, and there were a lot of young British actors and directors there who were very hungry for knowledge. It's good in life to share, I think, because there are lots of people that I was inspired by when I was younger.

Who were your early inspirations?
Someone who has worked here, Patrice Chéreau, was a great inspiration for me in opera as well as theatre. There was also Rainer Werner Fassbinder; in my early years I really loved his approach of working really hard and getting the best out of an ensemble of actors. I admired his attitude of 'fuck you, I'm the king of the world' – I liked that a lot. And then on a totally different level Peter Stein, who taught me the importance of dramaturgy, of analysing a play and translating it into a very particular form; that you have to invent a space for each play.

Your last production here, A View from the Bridge, was a huge success – what are your reflections on it now?
I never expected it, I have to admit. I was reluctant to come here [to the UK] – I had preconceptions about British actors, which turned out to be totally wrong. When I arrived here I was immediately happy; I don't know why. I felt really good throughout rehearsals, it felt like everybody really cared about the project. The rehearsal process went scarily smooth, there was not a single conflict, nothing went wrong, it was amazing. Jan [Versweyveld, van Hove's partner and designer] said before tech rehearsals "this is something special" – he saw it, but I didn't. And then at the first preview, I'll never forget it, I really felt the impact of it. That production has really changed my life a lot; it's amazing how many people have seen it, many of them more than once – I got so much from it and it's led to me working on Broadway.

Mark Strong and the company of A View from the Bridge
Mark Strong and the company of A View from the Bridge
© Jan Versweyveld

Tell us how Song from Far Away came about
Simon [Stephens] wanted to write something for me, but I was like an escape artist. I've never done a new play – which may be a shocking idea to British people. For me it's to do with how I… I'm not doing theatre because it is my job. I'm doing it because it is my life. Because I express who I am, what I think, what I feel, what I hate, what I love – in my productions. It's my personal thing, my diary. I always say when you look at all my plays, you know who I am. So if you feel like that, the thought of commissioning a play is scary; what if the author writes it and I don't like it? I was so afraid of that thought that I always avoided the challenge of a new play. But thanks to my time in London I'm suddenly working with Simon, and with Enda Walsh [on Lazarus, the new musical featuring David Bowie songs which premieres in New York later this year], and I'm in close contact with Patrick Marber about a future project. I learnt that new writing is a total collaboration. These writers love to sit at the table and talk about the work; yesterday I changed something in the production and Simon emailed this morning and made a suggestion and then we found something new. It's a real collaboration. Here the authors are very used to that, but to me it was a discovery.

The play explores an 'unexamined life'
It's more of a monologue than a play. It's about a young man who's working in a bank in New York – he's Dutch but has escaped from his family. He's happy being totally detached, living anonymously in New York and earning a lot of money. Then suddenly his brother dies and his mother asks him to come home. He hates that idea, but he goes home to Amsterdam, to the family he thought he'd never see again. So he has to totally reconsider his life. His mourning process becomes cathartic.

Simon is a writer whose work spans a number of styles; where does this fit in?
This text is very tender and soft. It's like a fine pencil drawing rather than a painting. It's quite poetic; it's dramatic but in an emotional way. I'm known for my 'power theatre', but this is different. My father was a pharmacist, in the old fashioned sense. He made medicines himself and he used milligrams to measure them out, rather than kilos and tons. This production is like those milligrams. Tiny changes can have enormous impact. I love working with a big crew, but on these kinds of projects it's just me, a dramaturg, Jan, three technicians and the actor [Eelco Smits]. It's like a song as opposed to an orchestral piece.

Ivo van Hove in rehearsals with Simon Stephens, Bart van den Eynde and Eelco Smits
Ivo van Hove in rehearsals with Simon Stephens, Bart van den Eynde and Eelco Smits
© Jan Versweyveld

Speaking of the song, how did Mark Eitzel come to be involved?
The idea of the play led us to Mark. He was totally surprised when I met him that I have his albums at home – he said "nobody has them!". I think he was quite overwhelmed. I love his work, I love singer-songwriters. The song changed a lot during rehearsals, but one day I asked him to play it as he had the first time we heard it, and we ended up using the first version of it. It was a lesson that developing something can often lead you back to the original. And like with Simon, it was a total collaboration.

At the other end of the scale, your Shakespearean epic Kings of War is coming to London next year
I had the idea for it back in 2008 or 2009; I wanted to do Henry VI and Richard III, and then later we brought Henry V to it. But I said to my people "I'm not afraid of waiting", because at that time Roman Tragedies had just been produced. I didn't want people to think I was trying to replicate the success of that. Stylistically I found my own way with it – love it or hate it, it's different, and it's the right skin for the stories, which are all about leadership.

There seems to be a renewed appetite for marathon productions
I always feel with long productions that people start to become a community. People feel very together watching them. Roman Tragedies was six hours long and there was a great community feel. Scenes from a Marriage was four hours, and by the end people were embracing each other. That's what a marathon can give you, if it's good. You forget about time – you have the feel of having a special experience. And Shakespeare invented it; well, perhaps the Greeks invented it, but Shakespeare developed it.

Are you a responsive director, or do you stay true to your vision at all costs?
I have a clear vision, but I'm open to change. A production is a living thing. For instance I'm working on a production in Holland at the moment based on the novel The Hidden Force, and I had the idea that some scenes in it should be danced. So the actors rehearsed with a choreographer and I immediately saw that it worked – but if it hadn't, I would have dismissed it immediately. Ideas mustn't be too fixed. Kill your darlings – that's the most important piece of advice for a director. And I can really kill a darling.

You're about to open A View from the Bridge in New York – do you feel any trepidation about taking the play back to its home country?
Of course. But after that I'm doing The Crucible [with Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo], which is even trickier, because that's the American classic. Scott Rudin is producing A View from the Bridge [and The Crucible], and I said I wanted to bring over the English cast. I could have cast over there, but I didn't want a mixed cast of English and American. And working with those actors was so great. There will be high expectations after its success here, but I'm very confident because I know the production is good. Whatever other people think, I can live with.

Song from Far Away is at the Young Vic until 19 September