Tag Archives: Ivo van Hove

“Opening Night” at the Gielgud Theatre

Big names make this new musical exciting. Superstar director Ivo van Hove is joined by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and national treasure Sheridan Smith. Not forgetting the name John Cassavetes, the filmmaker whose work the show is based on. Opening Night joins new openings, such as Hadestown and Standing at the Sky’s Edge, in striving for originality: it impresses and intrigues, even if it isn’t entirely successful.

The story is simple enough: a documentary crew is filming the rehearsals of a new Broadway show. That said, interval eavesdropping suggests many in the audience found it hard to follow, because the lines between characters and their roles are blurred. Aging star Myrtle (Smith) is being directed and starring next to old flames. And the producer is in love with her. Meanwhile, the play they are rehearsing is about a mature woman who is desperate for love and struggling with her personal life.

Still, a show within a show is an old trope, even if it isn’t normally played out like this. There’s an awful lot about the nature of reality – Van Hove is far from subtle. So, I guess it’s not so much the story as the way it’s told. There’s a lot of live recording (as usual, Jan Versweyveld’s work is clever), but it’s a shame the recent production of Sunset Boulevard is so fresh in people’s minds. And a red curtain obscures the action a lot of the time. To be generous, it’s surely supposed to be frustrating. There is a conflict between screen and stage that reflects the source material. It is a matter of taste as to how interesting you think this is… it might sound academic.

Sheridan Smith and Shira Haas

It’s down to Smith to provide emotion and that she does. This is a raw performance, sometimes difficult to watch. Myrtle is an alcoholic and has a breakdown during the show, which includes violent hallucinations about a young fan she sees die. This ghostly role, taken by Shira Haas, is paired with the play within a play’s author, an older woman, performed by Nicola Hughes. Van Hove pivots the story on the theme of “the ages of woman” – not a bad idea, but one that becomes clear too late in the action.

The songs are good, especially those for women. Smith sounds terrific, as does Hughes, who provides a brilliant finale for act one. But I’m not sure there’s enough music to please the musical theatre crowd. And it’s hard to escape the idea that everything would sound better if Wainwright sang it himself.

There’s another strong female part for Amy Lennox as the wife of director Manny (she might have the best number as well). But all the fellas are a sorry state. Not that the performances aren’t committed – Hadley Fraser, John Marquez and Benjamin Walker are all great. But all these self-obsessed neurotics are tough to take. Maybe it links to another problem – the play within the play doesn’t seem very good! We can understand why Myrtle is struggling. None of it appears worth the effort.

Struggling artists are, mostly, interesting only to themselves. To be fair, a song from the director reminds them how lucky they are to do the job. So why does the number sound hollow? The show’s surprisingly happy finale – about, of all things, the magic of theatre – also rings false. It’s hard to escape the idea that the show is about irony …and very little else.

Until 27 July 2024


Photos by Jan Versweyveld

“Who Killed My Father” at the Young Vic

One area of director Ivo van Hove’s considerable expertise is monologues. As with a former fantastic production, Song From Far Away, close work with a single performer and an intense script can yield powerful results. This show, starring Hans Kesting, shares potent subjects and fantastic acting that deserves acclaim.

Adapted by van Hove from the book by Édouard Louis, Kesting takes the author’s voice as well as depicting his parents. Growing up gay in rural France, dealing with his father’s homophobia and violence, are exposed in harrowing detail. These sections have undoubted force.

Yet the title tells us this is a work about a father as much as a son.  It’s a memoir and a political lecture. How the father is a victim of violence himself – by the ruling classes – is Louis’ concern. Along with the repercussions on both men in the past and present. How the personal and the political imbricate is the point laboured. But I’m not sure it works here. And it’s not because Louis is incorrect. The source material (and Returning to Rheims by Didier Eribon which covers similar ground, if you’re looking for further recommendations) is worth reading. The problem lies with the adaptation.

The “negative existence” of the father’s life arrives too late. It’s understandable that the author discovered this as an adult. But for the audience, there’s a lot of Louis – and the trauma around a childhood performance of a pop song – to get through first. Dramatically, the impact of life limitations on his father feels rushed. The theatricality of the show is aided by Jan Versweyveld’s sound and lighting design. But van Hove’s adaptation sells his source material short and given the director’s track record, that disappoints.

Until 24 September 2022


Photo by Jan Versweyveld

“The Human Voice” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Jean Cocteau’s 1928 play presents one side of a telephone conversation between a woman and her former husband. It’s an intimate piece, at times unbearable so, as the woman’s despair at the end of her marriage threatens her sanity. The Human Voice is depressing, but undeniably powerful.

With such a stripped back idea – just one woman talking – there is a sense the play is better suited to small venues. The only other production I’ve seen was in the tiny Gate Theatre. In truth, the show is a little lost on a West End stage, a problem exacerbated by Jan Versweyveld’s design for this production which reduces what we see to the size of a cinema screen.

Our current dependency on phones is presaged by Cocteau – it makes the urgency of crossed lines and calls cut off even greater than the writer imagined. Audience members struggling to last this hour long show without checking their mobiles confirms all this. But it is the feelings of someone abandoned that drive the show rather than a comment on technology.

Director Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation does well to emphasise the sophisticated emotions Cocteau documents. And the intensity in the script is brilliantly depicted by Ruth Wilson. From initially pretending she is coping well with the breakup, to totally breaking down, Wilson’s confidence in the role is brave and justified.

Moments when her character is manic, literally barking like a dog, are balanced by prolonged stillness – it’s hard to work out which is more uncomfortable. If the production has a flaw, it is that this discomfort becomes confrontational. Van Hove’s ending, suggesting suicide, is extreme. And turning parts of the script into a monologue (so that we further question the characters sanity) jar. Thankfully, Wilson’s excoriating performance manages to save the production.

Until 9 April 2022


“Network” at the National Theatre

Bryan Cranston’s funny, moving and truly magnetic star turn as a television news anchor who goes mad is a soaring success. And there are strong performances from Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery as TV executives fighting to profit from or protect Beale, while they start a romantic affair. A large supporting cast are on hand to broadcast Beale’s breakdown and subsequent career as a TV prophet who channels “popular rage”. As the ratings rocket, the chaos of live TV is innovatively portrayed. And yet director Ivo van Hove’s hit show has left me a little baffled.

With camera operators joining the performers, this show is a technical marvel. Nearly all the action is filmed live, including a scene on the Southbank, and relayed to a giant screen. Most people have seen something like it before… but not on this scale. Often confusing (although occasionally the delay in feedback is used to great effect), for most of the time it’s an exciting, if overwhelming, technique. Action occurs at the extremes of the stage, so no matter where you sit you will struggle at times. And there’s some toe-curling audience participation, which never works at the National Theatre. Most memorably there’s a restaurant on stage – a real one. So people are having a whole meal during the show, which proves distracting enough to watch, let alone partake in. Apart from a lame pun on the idea of TV dinners, allowing this pop-up is a real puzzle.

There’s a lot going on, and if you cried gimmick it would be hard to argue against you. Nonetheless Van Hove’s iron grip on events makes the show plough on with an arresting energy. The problem is a slim play. Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s film is too conservative, pinning the play in its 1970s moment, when we all know how much the media has moved on. A campaign recruiting the public to send in videos of themselves repeating Beale’s “I am mad as hell” mantra sticks out painfully. Even worse, several speeches by Beale and a godlike owner of the company show the central ideas in the piece as dated, nonsensical, conspiracy theories. Moments clearly meant to be profound end up sounding silly. No amount of fancy tricks can hide a flaw like that.

Until 24 March 2018


Photos by Jan Versweyveld

“Lazarus” at the King’s Cross Theatre

The starting point for David Bowie’s hit musical is Walter Tevis’s book, which was turned into a film by Nicolas Roeg, The Man Who Fell To Earth, which Bowie starred in. And heaven help you if didn’t know that. Lazarus is a sequel, brought up to date, to our own confusing times, following an alien stranded amongst us. Newton the extra terrestrial, stricken by gin-soaked delusions, is homesick and lovelorn. Much, or most, of the action happens within his broken psyche – and remember, this is an alien mind – with characters and events set free from time and described by him as “a dream, a delusion, a chemical belch inside my head”. In his desire to travel home, Newton’s travails are trippy, to say the least.

Given the title, along with Bowie’s untimely passing, it’s obvious that death is the theme here. Impressively, there’s nothing morbid or sentimental about it. Instead, it’s a remarkably objective questioning of mortality, in connection with cognition, that results in an intellectually engaging piece. The guess is that Bowie’s spiritual beliefs are behind a lot of it. Working with playwright Enda Walsh gives the book clout and aids the piece’s strongest feature – originality. If you feared a jukebox musical, rest assured, Lazarus is worlds away from that. There’s original music to enjoy and the Bowie back catalogue used is incorporated with wonderful ingenuity. It’s a shame that overall, (space) oddity is revelled in a little too much.

Michael C Hall takes the lead with a studied performance that’s impressively agile, utterly committed and shows a voice that uncannily approaches Bowie’s own. But the role of Newton overwhelms other characters. Only Michael Esper comes close, injecting passion and some much needed humour into the devilish role of a psychotic called Valentine. Quite what the character is there for is one of many opaque points. Strange it all is. Relentlessly. Ivo van Hove directs, relying heavily on a central screen and video projections (courtesy of Tal Yarden) that are the key to Jan Versweyveld’s cool design, along with the choreography of Annie-B Parson. It has to be stressed that the filmic extras are among the best you could see on stage. And the movement is brilliant. Van Hove creates startling images. But, combined with the uncharismatic temporary venue that houses the show, it’s all too reminiscent of a music video and strangely one note-monotonous in its intensity, despite all that novelty.

Until 22 January 2016


Photo by Jan Versweyveld

“Song From Far Away” at the Young Vic

The combination of respected playwright Simon Stephens and director of the moment Ivo van Hove makes this new play a hot ticket. A demanding monologue, presented as letters written by well-to-do young banker Willem recalling his brother’s death, funeral and family relationships, it’s an intense 80 minutes that has exceptional moments.

Dutch actor Eelco Smits gives a wholly admirable performance in a difficult role – not least because a good part of it is performed naked, and mostly since the character is curiously bland. While it’s clear he’s a tortured soul, the reasons why remain tantalisingly unexplored. Stephens carefully controls Willem’s above-average executive angst and the audience’s latent sympathy. Moments of empathy for his parents are moving, his own lost love likewise, but so much is left unsaid, despite detailing his life and grief.
Eelco_Smits_in_Song_From_Far_Away._Photo_by_Jan_Versweyveld_3Stephens’ writing is poetic and full of satisfying observations. The ordinary is addressed in a meticulous manner that grows on you. But it’s hard to disguise the play’s thinness. Nonetheless, van Hove makes the show super stylish with a portentous atmosphere. There’s a fulsome appreciation of the silences in life, which Stephens writes eloquently about and enriches Mark Eitzel’s recurring song for the piece. Above all, there’s some stunning staging, akin to still lifes with nudes, through the exquisite design and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, which enforce the play’s understated poignancy.

Until 19 September 2015


Photo by Jan Versweyveld